Fleshing out the rules

New censorship diktat for soap operas makes life tougher for producers

Fan BB empress of china

Fan Bingbing: dresses like these have prompted censors to change rules

According to Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus Helen of Troy’s face launched a thousand ships. In China’s current broadcasting environment, Fan Bingbing’s cleavage seems capable of stirring a similar number of proscriptive regulations.

China’s media watchdog, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), is reportedly tightening up censorship of TV soaps and dramas to make sure that sensibilities are no longer offended by plunging Tang Dynasty necklines and other such smut.

The new censorship rules, which are due to come into effect this month, could delay broadcast dates by up to six months. They are targeted particularly at satellite broadcasters, which are often felt to be too fond of what the government calls “vulgar” programming (others just call it popular).

The Chinese government has been pushing for greater modesty and decorum in all aspects of public life, and this has translated into tougher rules for TV and movies too.

Under the new regulations, any show broadcast on satellite TV stations, especially primetime dramas, needs to be reviewed first by the provincial TV and broadcasting bureaus, then handed to their respective propaganda departments for further work, before finally getting the same treatment by SAPPRFT, the central government’s media regulator. This will lengthen the time for a programme to get approval to air and increase the probability that content will end up on the cutting room floor.

TV dramas scheduled to air on state broadcaster CCTV will also get reviewed, this time by the propaganda department of the central committee of the Communist Party. Producers have been told that finished work needs to be submitted three months before broadcast.

One of the motivating forces behind the ruling is the controversial appearance of Fan’s cleavage in the historical drama Empress of China at the turn of this year. The series, also known as The Saga of Wu Zetian, tells the story of China’s only female emperor, who ruled during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907). It was reportedly the most expensive Chinese TV drama ever made but was quickly pulled from screens for “technical reasons”. It returned a week later after TV regulators had explained that a fresh edit had removed “some unhealthy images for minors”.

Too much cleavage was the issue. The show’s producers argued with the regulator that the décolletage was in keeping with styles of dress in the Tang Dynasty, but the censors clearly thought otherwise, ordering them to refocus camera shots on the characters’ heads, and edit out cleavage. Understandably there were some disappointed viewers, who soon registered their disdain online (see WiC265).

Broadcast officials also took a puritan line in Hong Kong, where the show was broadcast by local channel TVB. There, a team of CGI experts obscured the offending scenes with digital fabric.

The shots wouldn’t generate the same debate among most Western audiences but China has stricter standards on furtive displays of the flesh. Nonetheless, the reaction on Sina Weibo to the new censorship rules is best described as peeved. “This department is so irritating,” wrote commentator Guangdang Xin. “Why don’t they do something useful like ban all those fake medical advertisements?”

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