In China, popular TV shows get the ax


Too risque. Too subversive. Too long. Or perhaps just too popular.

All of the above can be capital offenses for Chinese television shows. In the last month, China’s broadcasting regulator has given the ax to some of the most popular programs for reasons that sound increasingly capricious.

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has been on a roll this year. It kicked things off with flourish in April with a statement admonishing shows for “lacking ideological significance” and banning time travel as a plot device for “treating serious history in a frivolous way.”


Last month, it announced that it would not allow the enormously popular “American Idol”-type show “Super Girl” to air next season, ostensibly because it repeatedly overran its state-mandated 90-minute time slot.

On the same day, the watchdog handed down a one-month suspension to a station in the northern city of Shijiazhuang for “magnifying distorted ethics and moral values” after a segment in one of its talk shows showed a man berating his elderly father.

Then Jin Xing, a popular transsexual dancer, was removed as a judge from an “American Idol” clone, “Feitong Fanxiang,” on Zhejiang province television. Jin, in a telephone interview, said she was informed of her dismissal by the director of the show, often called “I Am the One,” who said he was told the dancer’s presence would have “a negative influence on society.”

“China’s always like this: People outside of the circle are directing, guiding, decision-making. It’s ridiculous,” said Jin, perhaps China’s most public transsexual. She had appeared on the show eight times without the government raising objections.

All broadcast material in China is subject to government censorship, with Tibetan separatism and the Tiananmen Square protest perennial no-nos, for example. But market reforms in the 1990s gave rise to a number of provincial television stations that are driven by ad revenue rather than government support, making them subject to less strenuous political control than the state broadcaster, CCTV.

Locked in fierce competition for ratings, these stations stack their schedules with singing contests and ribald dating shows — fast-paced fare brimming with tearful participants, personal revelations and unlikely heroes. But all provincial stations walk an invisible line, with shows that the media watchdog deems out of whack with the government’s moral agenda in danger of being whisked off the air.

People in the television industry complain that the watchdog’s rulings often come out of the blue, leaving them scratching their heads trying to fathom the reasoning.

“They don’t have any detailed standards for what you can do and what you can’t,” said Miao Di, a professor of television arts at China Communications University in Beijing. “Fundamentally, it’s just, whatever they say goes.”

Some experts attribute the recent restrictions to an old axiom in China’s television industry: For powerful officials, entertainment programming only gets in the way of television’s true purpose -- to espouse the party line.

“Propaganda programs will be very important next year because of the leadership change,” said Yuan Fang, a professor at China Communications University, referring to the shuffling of the country’s top leadership that occurs every five years.

This year has seen a slew of restrictions. Three months before the Communist Party’s 90th anniversary this summer, television authorities suspended all crime and spy dramas, replacing them with flag-waving marches and “revolutionary” soap operas.

Last month, “Super Girl” broadcaster Hunan Satellite TV announced that it would replace the show with “programs that promote moral ethics and public safety, and provide practical information for housework.”

The suspension has left many viewers disappointed and confused. “A weekend without ‘Super Girl’ just doesn’t seem complete,” one girl from Zhejiang province wrote on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

“Super Girl” was a refreshing contrast to CCTV, the state broadcaster, known for its roster of soporific news reports and Communist Party history lessons. Young people in particular immediately took to the show’s emotional outbursts, acerbic judges and text-message voting system that allowed users to choose the competition’s victors.

But its unorthodoxy grated on party officials. Liu Zhongde, a former culture minister, unleashed a nationwide controversy in 2006 when he called “Super Girl” an attack on traditional Chinese values. “It poisons young people’s minds, misleading them to believe one can achieve success with no effort,” he said.

Although the season finale of “Super Girl” that year attracted 400 million viewers, the show was taken off the air and wasn’t revived until three years later. Off-site voting for all of China’s “American Idol”-style shows was banned in 2007.

Jeremy Goldkorn, a China media analyst and founder of the Web magazine, said that despite the rise of the Internet, “TV is still seen as a vital part of the way the government talks to the people.” The media watchdog, he explained, may simply favor the state broadcaster over regional stations that it finds more difficult to control.

“It seems like sort of a turf war,” he said. “CCTV is not happy when a provincial broadcaster has a show with such popularity.”

The heavy hand of the censor may be backfiring on the Communist Party by making television increasingly irrelevant. A report by Stanford University and Beijing-based consulting firm BDA blamed the government watchdog for pushing viewers onto the Internet, a significantly more difficult medium to control. According to the report, China had 240 million online TV viewers in 2010, an increase of 38 million over the previous year.

Jin, the transsexual dancer, welcomes the change. “Most channels just have stupid TV dramas and low-quality TV shows,” she said.

Kaiman is a special correspondent.