Not so happy anymore

TV show watched by hundreds of millions has plug pulled by regulator

Not so happy anymore

This year’s top talent: Duan Linxi

This year China’s TV audience chose Duan Linxi – an androgynous-looking musician from Yunnan – as their ‘Happy Girl’.

Hundreds of millions tuned in to watch this year’s season finale of Happy Girl – China’s version of American Idol.

But future Happy Girl may see their hopes of stardom quashed. The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), China’s main broadcast regulator, has told Hunan Satellite TV, the show’s producers, that it is pulling the plug.

The reason? The series had exceeded a 90-minute episode limit on televised talent competitions, which government mandarins have variously described as “vulgar,” “manipulative” and “poison for our youth.”

(And Simon Cowell isn’t even involved in the franchise).

According to the Shenzhen Daily, authorities first started targeting talent shows three years ago, restricting their broadcast time to two hours a day, and banning them during primetime. Happy Girl – which starts at 10.30pm – has been accused of consistently flouting the rules. For instance, the show cited by SARFT in its shutdown directive lasted about 90 minutes longer than the cap, reports China Daily.

“The administration did set a telecast time limit in 2007, but in later approval documents it did not mention the limitation, so we did not attach enough attention to the time at first,” an executive at Hunan Satellite TV told the newspaper.

“Later we received a verbal warning from the administration and immediately adjusted the telecast time. But in later programmes, there were cases where we exceeded [the time] by several minutes.”

But critics detect other motives in the SARFT action.

Foremost is speculation that the authorities have grown uncomfortable with the voting that goes on in many of the show formats. In fact, mobile phone users were barred from selecting their favourite contestants via text message four years ago, forcing producers to limit audience participation largely to those inside the studio.

“This is clearly political! Do you know the implication of Happy Girl’ format? The show is one of the first to imitate the democratic election system. Once the public becomes aware of that, the government will not be able to suppress it,” one netizen wrote on his weibo.

Shutting down Happy Girl is bad news for Hunan TV. Despite losing viewers in each of its last three years, the franchise is still the top-rated series on Chinese television, generating lucrative returns through brand extensions, marketing arrangements and licensing fees.

Legal Evening News reckons Hunan TV makes about Rmb170 million annually from the show.

That may also explain SARFT’s clampdown. Analysts say Hunan TV – well-known for producing entertaining and rowdy programming – has increasingly upstaged CCTV, the leading state-run broadcaster.

“It’s obvious that the regulators are trying to safeguard the commercial interest of CCTV by eliminating its competition,” says Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University.

Perhaps Hunan should consider itself lucky. Last week SARFT ordered the total shutdown of another channel – Shijiazhuang TV in Hebei – for a month after one of its programmes came under fire for faking family conflicts.

The order came in response to a segment on talk show Emotion Code, which purported to depict angry, real-life scenes between father and son.

At one point, the son treats his father disrespectfully, berating him and threatening to take him to court.

But according to the regulators, the entire scene was scripted, and the participants paid for their performances. SARFT held the channel responsible for “misleading the public and tainting the image of radio and TV”.

In the past, SARFT has punished individual shows for various transgressions, often complaining about supposedly lewd content. But shutting down an entire television station for a month is one of the harshest penalties to date.

SARFT also displays a shortage of patience when it comes to the science fiction genre. Back in April, for instance, it decided to ban all time-travel dramas. The ruling still seems bizarre, but the censors maintained that the shows “casually make up myths, have monstrous and weird plots, use absurd tactics, and even promote feudalism, superstition, fatalism and reincarnation.”

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