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Economy

The Audience Is Not Stupid: The Backward Logic Of China's TV Censors

Essay: After a series of bans on game shows and dance contests, Chinese television now faces new restrictions on foreign programming. But even beyond its wariness of the outside world, Beijing doesn't understand that stifling popular culture can

 (Honza Soukup)
(Honza Soukup)
Ye Kuangzheng

BEIJING - Since last October, China's television stations have been behaving like frightened birds not knowing where to perch.

The State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) has come up with bans and prohibitions, one after another, in its efforts to control and censor cultural activities provided by these institutions. After the "Cutback on TV Entertainment" aimed at programs such as match-making game shows and dance broadcasts, and the "TV Commercials Ban," now there's a prime-time ban on airing foreign television series, including Taiwanese and Hong Kong productions. Furthermore, the air time devoted to foreign dramas must not exceed 25% of a channel's overall daily drama programming, and any series is limited to a maximum of 50 episodes.

It's hard to understand the logic of these bans. The choice of entertaining programs, foreign or home-made, or the decision of how many ads are shown has been already worked out by local television stations according to their own rules and broadcasting style. There's absolutely no need to manage an autonomous market which is capable of self-governance. The audience is not stupid. They can use their remote controls to cut off the lousy dramas or excessive advertising spots.

Such bans mean that the marketing experience and strategy acquired by the TV stations over the years has now become ineffective. Instead, they have to explore a new set of rules. This will negatively impact the growth and self-regulation mechanisms of the market.

At first glance, the ban on offshore drama seems to provide a monopoly to Chinese-made productions. But because of the earlier restrictions on commercial spots, a lot of local TV stations are now struggling to generate enough income to finance production of their own programs. This cuts into local TV's audience ratings.

Let cultural "ecology" flourish

It's so obvious what harm this monopoly can bring. Without the competition and comparison with offshore programs, coupled with the advertising restrictions, China's national TV production quality is bound to fall. Yet the SARFT doesn't seem to mind the constraints caused by these bans.

In this new century, with the expanding competition of Internet and video, TV has become increasingly vulnerable, attractive mainly to the middle-aged and elderly. Strangely enough, instead of taking initiatives to revitalize the market, the SARFT seems willing to suppress it through all kinds of prohibitions. From the ban on imperial dramas and comic series to the corruption plays and spy dramas, now it's the foreign series which have to go. Yet, the on-screen TV content has hardly stood out for its elegance. Programs are actually getting worse and worse, as China slides toward a moral degeneration.

Perhaps the real purpose of the SARFT is to reduce local TV's ratings and boost the interests of the CCTV, the predominant state television broadcaster. Although CCTV is also restricted by all these bans, it still functions as the state propaganda machine. The style as well as the content of the dramas it produces are relatively more restricted in attracting an audience. In the past few years, its ratings as well as its share of advertising income have been declining.

Still, the various bans have undoubtedly weakened local TV, and a part of the advertising revenue is naturally going to return to CCTV. This truth is confirmed by the total sum of advertising on CCTV for the year to come – a record-breaking total of 14 billion RMB ($2.2 billion), ending a progressive decline over the last 18 years.

The new ban's harm is not just limited to local television stations, but to culture as well. Since the opening of China in the 1980s, a lot of imported programs, including those from Taiwan and Hong Kong, have greatly influenced the formation of spiritual, cultural and social ideology. The prosperity of culture comes from a broad vision and free thinking. To block cultural exchange channels is to suppress a nation's space to grow culturally.

Any closed-up society is bound to decline. If those foreign dramas are also reflecting the pursuit of freedom, love, life and beauty, what's the point of isolating the people from them? That can only encourage the speculation of a pseudo-culture, which, on appearance, seems to promote "harmony," but in reality is undermining the freedom of this country's cultural ecology to flourish.

Neil Postman, the American educator, pointed out a long time ago in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) that although television has weakened people's faculty for rational inquiry through reading, its emotional power is nevertheless a new rhetoric of truth.

Everybody knows that there's a lot of "trash" on TV, but the existence of trash is precisely the guarantee of virtue and spiritual freedom in an era. In all culture, good and evil, elegant and vulgar, are always entangled together. It is only through comparison that people perceive the difference.

If we are forced to exclude popular culture, people will lose their judgment of goodness and elegance at the same time. Multiculturalism seeks to create people with a differentiating consciousness of good and evil, refined and vulgar. An individual's virtues are exactly based on his judgment and choices. They won't be nourished in ignorant soil, nor rely on a mandatory exercise proposed by others.

A civilized and dignified nation will not depend on various prohibitions and restrictions to grow up.

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Photo - Honza Soukup

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