Media and Advertising

SARFT throws in with market-driven TV

Remember all of the commotion a few weeks back about a television adaptation of Liang Yusheng's White-haired Demoness getting rejected by SARFT because too many other similar projects were in the works? It's all moot now, since SARFT has decided to let the market decide what gets produced.

The administration announced on Monday that it had scrapped its former quarterly review of TV series proposals, replacing it with a monthly review that differs in a number of significant ways.

Projects approved under the old system were given a three-year monopoly on their topic. It apparently wasn't uncommon for production companies to file an application on a popular topic without a script or a feasible production plan, locking out other companies who may have been more likely to bring something to the screen. The new regulations, which go into effect 1 May, give companies 60 days after approval to start filming - if they don't provide proof then their certification is scrapped.

The other big adjustment is found in Article 13:

Administrative departments, broadcasting, circulation, and production organizations, and other related organizations, producers, and investors, may access the "Announcement of TV shooting and production registration" on the SARFT website to find out the the latest shooting and production situation for TV series across the country. As they require it, they may pursue, purchase, cooperate, inspect, and make requests to relevant programs to effectively handle all manner of market actions including topic selection competiton, rights disputation, topic overlap, and duplicate shooting and production.

SARFT thus turns over responsibility for achieving topical balance in the year's television offerings to market forces. Will shows distribute themselves evenly among the administration's topical categories for television shows (see the translation at the bottom of this post)?

Wang Weiping, deputy director of SARFT's TV Drama Department, admits that there may be some chaos in the industry as producers adapt to the new way of doing things, but he said that the government chose to relinquish a bit of its oversight because the country's production companies are relatively strong; some smaller producers, however, may find themselves unable to compete now that they no longer can acquire a monopoly on a popular subject.

Nevertheless, SARFT still has plenty of leeway in what it is able to reject - it reserves the right to prevent or halt production at any time. Other reviewing organizations are required to notify applicants within 10 days if their project doesn't enter the registry, and a "pocket veto" of sorts in the new regulations means that any project not publicly approved or returned for changes within 10 days is automatically denied, with no explanation necessary. And, as always, any shows dealing with "major topics" like the revolution, or "sensitive topics" like politics, military affairs, international relations, war, religion, ethnicity, law, public security, education, and famous figures need to be approved by government organizations at the provincial level or higher.

How many costume dramas can the market support? Next year around this time we may have our answer.

Update: Reuters has a different perspective:

China unveiled new censorship rules for television dramas and news reports on Tuesday that tighten the Communist Party's squeeze on the country's increasingly commercial media. The new rules...said historical soap operas that involve 'major or sensitive' issues -- including political, military and religious themes -- must receive approval. Those that 'seriously' depart from censors' demands will not be given screening approval, SARFT said.

It's true that the preamble to the memo goes on at length about "strengthing political consciousness," but that sort of boilerplate may not mean anything significant. This "sensitive issues" have appeared in prior SARFT documents - the earlier system required certain topics to be pre-approved by relevant government departments, and SARFT's movie review system treats those topics as "special" as well. What seems to be going on here is that SARFT is turning its review responsibility over to provincial-level oversight bodies, and is reiterating its own in-house requirements for their benefit.

A few reports in the Chinese media looked at the localization angle, but most chose to play up the phasing out of what Wang called a vestige of the planned economy, since it has a greater potential to be directly relevant to viewers' interests. Perhaps this will result in greater censorship, but on the surface of it, the Reuters article seems to be another instance where any change in media regulation is seen as a bad thing.

Thematic Category Standards for TV Series

I. Contemporary themes
TV series set in the reform-and-opening-up era, divided according to content into:
Contemporary army subjects;
Contemporary urban subjects;
Contemporary rural subjects;
Contemporary youth subjects;
Contemporary criminal investigation;
Contemporary science fiction;
Other contemporary subjects.

II. Modern themes
TV series set between 1949 and the reform-and-opening-up era, divided according to content into:
Modern army subjects;
Modern urban subjects;
Modern rural subjects;
Modern youth subjects;
Modern criminal investigation;
Modern biographical subjects;
Other modern subjects.

III. Pre-modern themes
TV series set between the 1911 revolution and 1949, divided according to content into:
Pre-modern revolutionary subjects;
Pre-modern urban subjects;
Pre-modern youth subjects;
Pre-modern legends and romances;
Pre-modern biographical subjects;
Other pre-modern subjects.

IV. Ancient themes
TV series set before the 1911 revolution, divided according to content into:
Ancient legends and romances;
Ancient palace subjects;
Ancient biographical subjects;
Ancient martial arts subjects;
Ancient youth subjects;
Other ancient subjects.

V. Major themes
Major themes are those that the SARFT has designated as major in its documents on revolutionary and historical themes, divided according to story content into:
Major revolutionary subjects;
Major historical subjects.

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