Chinese Authorities Crack Down On Reality Television

Robert van der Hilst / Corbis

For a media specialist, Guo Ke doesn't watch much TV these days. The dean of the journalism school at Shanghai International Studies University is too worried about the impact of popular shows on his 12-year-old daughter.

"I have to be a role model for her," he says. "This is a critical stage in her development, and I really want to limit her watching these kind of TV programs. There's too much violence and sex, or things related to sex, and so many low-quality reality shows…They're eroding the foundations of our cultural values."

It seems his fears are shared by at least some of China's leaders. Over the past six months, China's official TV regulator has issued a string of rules restricting everything from spy dramas and crime stories to programs about time travel. It's also banned foreign dramas during primetime, and has targeted what it calls "over-entertainment"—a reference to the talent contests, dating shows, and other reality programs swamping China's airwaves.

The official aim is to replace such content with shows that "build morality and promote the core values of socialism," a move that has been seen as part of a broader attempt to foster a more wholesome public morality ahead of China's sensitive political transition this year, when President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao will be replaced by a new generation of leaders.

Yet the irony is that the "vulgar content" is, in a sense, a monster of Beijing's own creation. In the early 1990s, the government decided to allow TV stations to raise money from advertising, sponsorship, and commercial sales, and reinvest the revenue in programs. It led to a massive expansion of the industry: from just a handful of turgid, heavily controlled networks in the 1980s, China now has more than a thousand TV channels, with satellite, digital, and Internet TV increasingly influential. There are channels for wrestling, fishing, golf, even "pregnancy and childbirth." On Jan. 1 this year, the government even launched China's first 3-D channel.

At the same time, the authorities have been at pains to filter out anything with political overtones. This has made it difficult for news programs, for example, to attract viewers with hard-hitting reporting. A wave of imported TV dramas from Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea initially helped fill the content gap, but some were later banned for promoting lifestyles that the government saw as incompatible with socialist values. There have been a few attempts to make compelling homegrown dramas, but many of these also fell afoul of the censors, like 2009's Woju ("Cramped Living"), which focused on the struggles of young people to afford homes in China's big cities amid soaring property prices.

So it's no wonder that, in an increasingly competitive market, many TV stations began to focus on reality shows and other cheap, popular programming to lure audiences and advertisers. As David Bandurski of the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong puts it, Beijing "created such a narrow space in terms of what's allowed…I think it's often because of the political controls that you get so much extreme commercial programming."

Certainly, TV executives make no bones about the commercial pressures they are under. As Wang Lijun, deputy director of the international channel at Shanghai Media Group, which runs the city's TV stations, says bluntly: "There's no government funding in TV now—we've had to live from advertising." He adds: "For the past few years entertainment shows have been so popular, so all the TV stations see them as a good way to earn money."

The model has been financially successful: in 2008, the last year for which complete figures are available, TV advertising in China was worth $4 billion dollars; by 2010, one provincial station, Jiangsu Broadcasting, alone netted revenue of $2.4 billion, and this year its most popular dating show took $288 million in ad sales.

But as the TV industry has opened up and stations vie for eyeballs, content has become racier—and more Western. Shanghai Media Group snapped up the rights to America's Got Talent, Amazing Race, and Britain's celebrity dance contest Strictly Come Dancing. And many regional networks have hired producers from Taiwan, where media is far more open, bringing a more quirky style and, often, scantily clad contestants. Shanghai Media Group has pioneered Oprah-style confessional shows that have brought previously taboo debates about emotional problems onto TV (one show featured a man and his wife being confronted by the man's illegitimate son).

There has been some adaptation to local mores: on several dating shows, male contestants are grilled not only by the woman they seek to woo but by her parents too. But overall, according to Mary Bergstrom, a Shanghai-based consultant on youth trends, the reality shows have captured the more individualistic mood of modern China: "Young people in China want to be themselves," she says. "They're interested in exploring difference and the freedom to see new things—and the TV stations have been trying to cater to this."

But while young viewers may lap up the programs, officials have become increasingly anxious about a lack of wholesome content. In 2010, a contestant on a dating program attracted a storm of criticism online after telling a prospective partner that she would rather "be crying in a BMW than smiling on the back of a bicycle." A female judge on one regional talent show was sacked for what officials said was excessive flirting with one of the male contestants. There have also been criticisms of overcommercialization and product placement, and a number of home-shopping programs have been banned for selling shoddy or fake products.

Accordingly, some have welcomed the recent regulations. "If they tolerate this kind of low-level TV industry, I think in 10 or 20 years it could be a disaster for our society," says Guo, the journalism dean.

Yet Bandurski of the China Media Project suggests the new call for moral programming may be motivated as much by leaders' desire to appease conservative factions ahead of this year's leadership transition, as by genuine anxiety about public morality. There have also been suggestions that some of the rules may be designed to protect China's national broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV) from growing competition from provincial satellite channels. Each Chinese province is allowed to broadcast just one channel nationally by satellite, while CCTV has 15 nationwide channels—but it's seen its audience share eroded by upstarts like Hunan Satellite TV, which has run chat shows on topics like homosexuality and scored massive national hits with talent shows such as Super Girls. The new limits on entertainment shows in primetime do not apply to CCTV—and it may be no coincidence that the national broadcaster recently announced a major new reality show of its own for 2012.

Some commentators have argued that the restrictions on "over-entertainment" could usher in a new era of high-quality, highbrow programming in China. But Jin Xing, a dancer who found fame as an outspoken reality-show judge, says that while China must move away from lowbrow copycat shows, the last thing it needs is more regulation. "People and society are ready to hear the truth," she says. "They know that what they see and what they hear are often two different things. They urgently want different opinions—they can make their own judgments now."

And Bandurski says the call for more "moral" programming is out of step with society: "People are seeing the entertainment rules as basically a ban on fun," he says. "If they really want good-quality TV programming, they have to open up the news and entertainment media."

Indeed, the regulations may only accelerate the defection of young people from conventional TV to the Internet. "The Internet is this generation's TV," says Bergstrom, the consultant. "They've grown up with a sense of entitlement, that they can be entertained how they want, when they want—they know when things are contrived, and if they see them they just move on." Qian Jin, a young media columnist, notes that video-sharing websites have begun signing up TV hosts whose shows have been banned under the new regulations to make Web-only programs. Websites also have the advantage that they can often screen popular American or Taiwanese shows that would never get past the mainstream-TV censors, he says.

There have been signs that regulators may start to pay more attention to online TV—one "nihilistic" Hong Kong drama was recently pulled from websites. But it's possible that the relatively greater online openness, which many young people in China so cherish, might just outlast the current campaign to clean up the nation's TV screens.