Party celebrations

The coming months could prove dull for Chinese television viewers

Party celebrations

Su Yan: stars in Qingmang, one of the TV shows postponed

Propaganda season is in full flow – and it’s hitting the TV schedules. Early this month Beijing ordered satellite TV networks to take dramas about crime, romance or espionage off the air for the next three months. Instead, the authorities say (rather cryptically) that the networks should focus on drama that reflects “a positive life”.

So what counts as positive? Apparently “red dramas” – those that celebrate Communist Party heroes and heritage. This is being designed to dovetail with the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Party on July 1. Wang Weiping, deputy chief of the drama department at China’s state TV regulator, did little to disguise the move, telling the Beijing News that it is indeed a “propaganda period”.

Sources from Zhejiang Satellite TV reported that drama series with themes other than spying, criminal cases and romance can still be broadcast but that it is “obvious” that channels will focus on stories about revolution and the development of the Party (and People’s Liberation Army) over the period in question. As a result of the new rule, spy dramas must be rescheduled for later in the year.

Taking heed of the new ban, Tianjin Satellite TV has delayed the screening of a highly anticipated series, Qingmang – a 50-episode spy drama billed as China’s Prison Break – until after July. Instead, it will show a more wholesome comedy about mothers and their daughters-in-law.

Oriental TV, too, is changing its line-up, with the Shanghai broadcaster now featuring the government-approved ‘red drama’ Dong Fang. The show follows China’s Communist leader Mao Zedong from the founding of the People’s Republic of China through to his second visit to the former Soviet Union 12 years later. It also charts the development of Marxism-Leninism in China and the achievements of the Communist Party in politics, military, culture, economics and diplomacy. Mad Men it clearly ain’t…

Analysts say the latest order from SARFT (the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television) will hit the satellite networks’ profits. As WiC has written before, spy and crime series are hugely popular, translating into strong advertising revenue.

“Spy series are very popular this year and there has been fierce competition to acquire the broadcast rights,” an employee at Tianjin TV told China News. “Only big TV stations can afford the cost, like Tianjin, Oriental and Zhejiang Satellite TV. We spend several million yuan on a single spy series.”

It is not the first time SARFT has intervened directly in programming. This year it also banned the screening of dramas featuring time travel, which it says distort historical realities (see WiC98).

Similarly, last year it ruled that popular dating shows should ban “fake participants, morally-provoking hosts and hostesses and sexual innuendo”. Shortly afterwards, one of the most controversial and widely watched shows – If You Are The One – changed its format to appease the censors.

“TV stations quite often have to rearrange the TV drama broadcasting schedule at short notice. We are always ready to rearrange things. And we normally don’t ask why,” Ouyang Lina of Oriental TV told the BBC.

But ‘going red’ has downsides. Chongqing Satellite TV has laid off 20% of its advertising department and cut the pay of front-line staff since transforming into a commercial-free channel for a steady stream of “public interest” programming in March. It expects to incur a loss in advertising revenue of about Rmb300 million this year (see WiC101).

But the bad news for broadcasters is good news for video-sharing sites, with companies like Youku and Tudou likely to see a spike in traffic as viewers turn to the internet for entertainment.

Many netizens have left messages on their weibo (China’s Twitter-equivalent) saying they find the latest TV programming insufferable.

One wrote: “Now time-travel shows are banned, fantasy dramas are banned, spy and crime thrillers are banned and romance shows too. To make everyone happy the government should just get rid of all the satellite stations, leaving just the [state-owned] CCTV and Chongqing Red TV so that nothing is on the airwave but propaganda TV and red songs!”

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