BEIJING – Satellite broadcasters in China have cut their entertainment programming – including dating and reality shows – by two-thirds this week in order to comply with a new government edict.
The State Administration of Film Radio and Television, or SARFT, China’s highest media watchdog, announced the new rule in October – but it just came into effect Jan. 1. The number of entertainment shows airing during primetime has been cut from 126 to 38, according to the watchdog.
Apparently the ruling Communist Party is not happy with the proliferation of dating and talent shows that have become extremely popular in China over the last few years.
“Super Girl,” a copycat of “American Idol” by Hunan Satellite TV, started airing in 2004. It became the second most popular program in the country, behind only China Central TV (CCTV)’s prime-time news. During its final contest in August 2005, the show attracted about 9 million votes from the audience members for their favorite singers.
But that record was quickly surpassed by the sassy reality show “If You Are The One.” As the country’s most popular dating program, it broke viewership records in 2010 – more than 50 million people tuned in. It has made couch potatoes out of young and old who are glued to the TV every Saturday and Sunday night.
The success of those shows launched a whole series of similar “entertainment” programs, such as Shanghai OTV’s “Let’s Shake It” and “China’s Got Talent.” Many other provincial satellite TV channels soon followed suit, attracting millions of viewers, as well as ad dollars.
But now, the state media watchdog has said, enough is enough.
'What’s next, to become North Korea?'
“Why do they do that? If they want to brainwash people, why can’t they just let people have some fun? What’s next, to become North Korea?” asked Yvonne Kwan, the mother of a 6-year-old daughter.
Yvonne doesn’t watch that much TV, but she thinks the new rule isn't smart. “The audiences are used to what they watch. If you stop selling coffee to coffee drinkers and sell other drinks to them, they’ll only look for coffee somewhere else. These people will just go to Internet to watch the shows online,” she said.
Some critics say the recent restrictions are just another stab at stifling freedom of speech. The policy comes on the heels of another new rule that citizens must register with their real identities, not false names, on Weibo, a Twitter-like, but government-controlled, microblogging service.
The new restrictions came into effect just as President Hu Jintao published an essay in a Communist Party policy magazine earlier this week lashing out against the influence of Western culture. In the essay he stressed, “We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.”
Hu emphasized that the country must be on high alert for these nefarious forces. “We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond.”
What's really behind the clampdown? Money
Wang Xiaofeng, a senior culture reporter and Internet observer, doesn’t think Hu’s speech will have any impact.
“The cultural industry can be very profitable, much more profitable than selling TV sets. But it can easily awaken people,” Wang told NBC News in a phone interview. He was critical of the idea that the Chinese can suddenly start developing media with the same sophistication of the West.
“If you want to develop movie industry for example, you have to set up your hardware and see how it’s done in those developed countries. Then you realize how other people live. The Communist Party has abandoned the tradition already; now they can’t just pick it up and use it to challenge the West. Even their own people don’t believe in it,” Wang said.
He attributed the clampdown on entertainment programs to a colder economic calculus.
“Why do they have to cut the shows? These are not some vulgar or extreme shows. These provincial TV programs are attracting more commercials, and CCTV is losing them. They need the cash from commercials back.”
But he also suggested the changes may be for other realpolitik reasons. “It also has something to do with the power reshuffle this year. The old cake has already been cut and shared; now it’s time for the new cake in cultural industry.”
SARFT is well known for its irregular and not-much-explained crackdown on media. It allows 20 foreign movies to be imported to China every year and tightly controls the publication of all movies, books, magazines and TV programs.
But as much as Chinese people criticize the watchdog's strict oversight, they never fuss too long, because they have a very pragmatic solution – pirated publications.
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