Idol threats

Hunan Satellite TV faces scheduling crisis as regulator bans its top dramas


Claws out: Tan Songyun’s TV drama is a victim of the new ban

A photo of Xi Jinping taking a stroll with Barack Obama caused an unexpected stir on the Chinese internet. The snap was taken at the Sunnylands estate in California in 2013 and led amused netizens to post images that showed the two leaders’ uncanny resemblance to Winnie the Pooh and his taller, thinner pal Tigger (Xi’s profile was likened to the bear’s; see WiC197 for our original article on the topic). A year later netizens satirised an uncomfortable handshake between Xi and his Japanese counterpart, Abe Shinzo. This time the comparable scene was Pooh greeting his donkey friend Eeyore.

However, since last week images of the Disney bear have been banned from Chinese social media. According to the Financial Times, any weibo posts that contain the Chinese name of the animal have also disappeared. Even animated images featuring the honey-loving Pooh were removed from social messaging app WeChat.

While no official explanation was given, observers think the unflattering comparison with Winnie was scrubbed from the web at a time of high political sensitivity, with a major leadership reshuffle set to take place later this year.

Indeed, the ban on Winnie the Pooh looks to be part of a recent tightening of controls across the internet. The government has already shut down over 60 celebrity social media accounts for disseminating “vulgar content” and “negatively impacting society” with gossip (see WiC370). Earlier this month, SAPPRFT, the media regulator, also pulled the plug on livestreaming at platforms that included Sina Weibo and AcFun without explanation (see WiC373).

And last week it announced new directives to curb entertainment on the small screen. Starting next month, the airwaves are to be free of costume dramas and programmes that star teen idols. Instead August’s TV schedule is to be more focused on celebrating the altogether less frivolous 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. Television output should provide a “unified atmosphere” advised the regulator, ahead of the Party Congress later this year.

Less mindful of ratings than media executives, the government is encouraging the TV networks to screen “serious patriotic content” in the coming months. “During this period, [we] demand TV channels in all provinces not to air costume dramas, idol shows or content that is deemed to be too entertaining,” according to the document issued by the regulator.

So what counts as meeting the directive in being dull enough to justify getting broadcast? Under the new rules, one of the few shows to get the okay is Beijing Subway, a gritty drama that follows metro station employees as they tackle accidents on the underground. Another one that makes the cut is One Horse, Three Commanders, a series that tells the story of three proud patriots from Shandong who fight the Japanese invaders during the Sino-Japanese War.

Since the directive was announced, media executives have been reworking their programming line-ups, says Entertainment Unicorn, a showbiz blog. Given how well costume dramas have performed in the first half of the year – take actress Yang Mi’s Eternal Love, which racked up more than 30 billion views online (see WiC358) – virtually all the major networks had lined up similar dramas for the summer season.

It’s not a first, mind you. Industry observers say media regulators have a tradition of tightening control over TV content between July and October. Back in 2014, television stations were told to feature more shows that embraced Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” and a year later they were instructed to favour content that was “patriotic and antifascist” (good news for any programming related to the Second World War, or what the Chinese also term the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression).

“While this may not be the most appropriate comparison, the directive is like a chengguan [the country’s widely loathed municipal police] patrolling the street so all the small vendors are forced to pack up and leave. But after so many years, no matter which industry or business – especially entertainment – we have all learned to survive and tackle the ever-changing political climate,” Entertainment Unicorn opined.

Nevertheless, networks don’t have much time to rebuild their primetime schedules between now and August. Hunan Satellite TV is the most affected, says Entertainment Unicorn. While other stations have been adding family dramas to their line-ups, Hunan Satellite TV generally targets young viewers with idol formats like My Mr Mermaid, which was scheduled for release in mid-August. The series, which stars heartthrob Huang Shengchi and starlet Tao Songyun, is exactly the type of content barred by the new directive. Instead industry observers have been speculating that the network will doff its cap to the regulators by rerunning the anti-graft thriller In the Name of the People (arguably the biggest show this year and much loved by China’s senior politicians) as the channel scrambles to find other shows as replacements.

Hunan Satellite TV is not the only casualty in the government’s stricter regulation of online media. Bilibili, one of the most popular video-sharing sites, was also forced to take a number of TV shows and films offline last Wednesday. The website has not given an explanation for why the content – most of which was produced abroad – has suddenly vanished. Netizens have speculated that copyright issues are to blame as some of the material on Bilibili is uploaded by users without permission from copyright holders, says Sixth Tone, a blog. Others suspect it could be part of a broader purge of foreign content, with popular shows like Sherlock now gone from the download site.

“I’m heartbroken! All the series I like have been taken down. I’m so upset I want to throw up,” one netizen despaired. Another weibo user lamented the disappearance of videos from A Station and B Station – the nicknames of AcFun and Bilibili respectively. “Now, C Station rules the world,” the netizen wrote, referring to China’s state-controlled broadcaster CCTV.

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