Sales of 3-D TVs surge in China, but programming is curtailed

Chinese consumers are buying 3-D television sets in record numbers. But they may have nothing more exciting than cooking shows to watch.

The Chinese government inaugurated the nation's first officially sanctioned 3-D TV channel last month, on the first day of the new Year of the Dragon. At the same time, however, the government's effort to eliminate TV's "vulgar" and "immoral" influences cut prime-time entertainment programming by 70%.

According to the government, the 3-D channel heralds a "new milestone in the history of the development of broadcasting and television in China." Head broadcast regulator Cai Fuchao said it will create demand for 3-D sets "worth hundreds of billions of yuan."

Sales of 3-D-capable sets in China have been strong, spurred by the anticipated arrival of the channel, prices that have fallen in half over the last year and aggressive promotion from local producers such as Hisense Group and Skyworth.

Of 44 million TV sets shipped last year, more than 5.5 million were 3-D. Only 174,000 3-D sets were shipped in 2010.

In a central Beijing electrical department store, the Hisense booth was decked with a dozen 3-D televisions, all playing images of unfolding flower petals and quivering butterflies. Business has been brisk.

"From Jan. 1 to now we have sold zero normal televisions," shop assistant Chen Yunfeng said. "Every day we sell at least seven 3-D TVs, sometimes up to 20."

Under the new programming regulations, however, there may not be enough content to keep consumers watching their new sets.

In recent years, provincial satellite channels have pioneered provocative game shows that won viewers away from state TV's stale evening news and tedious dramas.

Smash hits emerged, like the 2010 dating show "If You Are the One," which broke ratings records with 50 million viewers. At one point, a 22-year-old model uttered the memorable phrase, "I'd rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the back seat of a bicycle." Final episodes of the "American Idol"-style competition show "Super Girl" exceeded 400 million viewers. Voting rounds gathered 800 million texts.

But under the most recent crackdown, the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television, or SARFT, issued new guidelines for programmers. It called certain shows "frivolous." In September, it suspended broadcasts of "Super Girl." In its place, SARFT recommended programming providing "practical information for housework." "If You Are the One" remained on the air but was sanitized by government restrictions.

In October, SARFT declared that as of January, provincial channels can now play just two entertainment shows a week, with a maximum of 90 minutes of entertainment programming in prime time, and must air weekly "morality building" programs. A maximum of 10 talent contests will be allowed nationwide annually.

Last year, SARFT even cracked down on popular time-travel programs — including one in which a woman is transported to the Qing dynasty and falls in love with a few princes — saying the programs were disrespectful to history. Last month it prohibited the airing of advertisements during television dramas.

The Cantonese movie "3-D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy," which created waves worldwide when it was banned in China last year, will definitely not make the cut on the new 3-D channel.

Less certain are TV versions of recent colossal 3-D successes, such as the 2009 movie "Avatar," which at $206 million became the highest-grossing film of all time in China, or last year's Jet Li martial arts blockbuster "Flying Swords of Dragon Gate," which grossed $79 million.

Cartoons, movies and sports content will show in three daily rotations of 4 1/2 hours.

Some are already displeased with the absence of 3-D shows.

"It is really not that helpful to see a technique-teaching program like a cooking show in 3-D," Tang Wenjie, a Beijing-based engineer, complained to state media after watching his first show during the channel's trial period last month. "Cooking is as difficult to learn in 3-D as it is in 2-D."

But others are confident their 3-D investments will pay off, in time, with some exciting programming.

Salesman Zhang Feng, 31, was planning to spend roughly $1,400 for a 46-inch 3-D-capable TV set, 3-D glasses and a set-top box.

"The channel just got launched," Zhang said. "It is only a matter of time for 3-D to grow big."

Freelance writer Catherine Zheng contributed to this report.

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