Media regulation

Some questions about SARFT's full-stop for Red Question Mark

Lipstick criminals on Red Question Mark

On 18 September, SARFT pulled the plug on Red Question Mark, a program that featured reenactments of sordid crimes committed by women.

Like the Administration's earlier action against the chaotic talent competition First Heartthrob, this time the regulators chose another easy target—as the rouged lips on the promotional poster at left indicate, the show sensationalized the lives and crimes of "lipstick criminals."

According to the Chongqing Evening News:

Yesterday [25 September], a reporter looked up director-producer Liu Hengjun at Guangxi Film Studios to speak to him about the banning of Red Question Mark. He said mournfully over the phone that he had received the notice: "It's horrible! I never thought it'd be like this!" However, he noted that the names of Red Question Mark II [completed] and Red Question Mark III [currently casting] had been changed to Tears Fall upon Rouged Lips*, and that their casting and distribution were not in doubt.

Liu said that while Red Question Mark involve cases of mistresses, forced prostitution, seduction, and drug-related prostitution, "We handled these things by implying them rather than showing them outright." As for the accusation that production was substandard, he said that the entire show had a production budget of just two or three million yuan. "The actors were all non-professionals taken from open casting, and since they all spoke the local dialect, the effect does indeed appear to be a bit crude—if the actors all spoke standard Mandarin, maybe it wouldn't seem so vulgar."

However provincial the production might seem, SARFT's claim that the show was banned for poor production values rings a bit hollow. Red Question Mark was authorized to begin shooting in 2003 and has been been airing for three years.

Red Question Mark has achieved stellar ratings over the past few years: it's had a strong showing on stations in Beijing, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Hunan for the past three years. As a "Hot CCTV Show," it aired four times during Prime Time on CCTV-3 and CCTV-8.

The Beijing News reports that back in 2003, the show was the second most-watched program in Nanjing (after the Chiung Yao historical tear-jerker My Fair Princess III), and in 2005 it won its national timeslot when it aired on Hunan TV.

Hence, much of the criticism of SARFT this time around focuses on why it waited so long to act against the show—why it "fixed the fence after the sheep had all fled." Columnist Chi Mo discussed the relevant questions in a piece for Great Wall Online:

One, how did crime become such a hot topic on television? We must admit that social and economic development have caused certain conflicts to appear; the problem of crime has become a social issue, and this has caught the attention of the film and TV world. A substantial number of good shows have come out, like The Judge [2001], Silent Promise [2002], Hero Without Regrets [1995], Pure Snow [2001], and Judge Zhang Yishi [telemovie series, 2003]. Great shows like these do indeed work to strengthen the people's concept of the legal system and prevent crime. However, there are also some TV shows that use gratuitous violence, sex, and bloody crime scenes and details in their pursuit of scares, danger, and novelty. While this excites the senses of the audience and can be cathartic, it can also easily lead to copycat crimes. Some TV shows are too sympathetic to criminals, and as a result turn good and evil upside-down. Crime elicits sympathy, while righteousness creates suspicion. This weakens the power of morality and the law and creates unwelcome consequences in society.

Two, how did Red Question Mark, which explores and romanticizes the actions of female criminals, pass the censors? The show was produced by Guangxi Film Studios and given the go-ahead by the Guangxi Radio and TV Bureau for broadcast on stations across the country. SARFT's notice regarding Red Question Mark raises the question of whether the TV censors have any specific standard in mind for inspecting shows. If they do, then why would a show that passed the Guangxi Radio and TV censors be axed by the State Administration? Is Guangxi's Bureau carrying out a different standard from the one SARFT uses? If there is no specific standard, then what do SARFT and the Guangxi Bureau base their reviews on? Does it all depend on the two departments' own sense of right and wrong?

Third, can we set up an area that is "off limits" to television? Halting broadcasts of Red Question Mark will cause major losses to the producers, no question about it. We know that filming a TV show requires substantial investment of manpower, money, and materials. The producers hope that their work will be able to pass review and connect with a wide audience. And in bringing aesthetic appreciation to the audience, they hope to recoup their costs and reap a bit of profit as well. However, because there are no precise rules, some TV producers have trouble with the "degree" during filming, and as a result, they run the risk of certain "plot elements" skirting too close to the edge and crossing the censors' line, bringing their TV show to an untimely end. When productions that have made it to broadcast are banned, it is even worse for the producers, and it causes negative effects in society. Hence, there should be an "off-limits area" set up for TV shows to prevent "accidents" and future incidents of banned programs.

Along with the name change, the two sequels have had to change their subject matter following the ban on crime dramas in Prime Time a few years back. "Tears Fall upon Red Lips" (Red Question Mark II and III) will be domestic dramas focusing on mother-daughter relationships, says Liu Hengjun.

SARFT's uneven interpretation of TV regulations and its somewhat capricious enforcement of various rules have made shows that deal with the police, national security, and legal affairs a touchy subject for producers. In Hangzhou's Metropolitan Express, Liu Hengjun is quoted as saying emotionally, "I'll never shoot a crime drama ever again!" And back in August, Liu Yunlong, director and star of the 2006 hit Intrigue, protested that his show, which featured undercover Communist agents in the 30s and counter-intelligence activity against Taiwan in the 1950s and 60s, wasn't the "spy drama" that the mainstream media had identified it as:

This entire show, from start to finish, doesn't show you a single spy. Is it a spy drama? It's not a spy drama at all!

On the other had, for Internet commentators whose careers aren't at stake, second-guessing the actions of the television regulators has become a fairly popular pastime. He Dong, an entertainment journalist, gets in a few choice digs at SARFT and CCTV with a blog post recounting a conversation he had with his mother about the recent SARFT notice on talent shows:

Because sparks given off by televised talent competitions have started brush fires everywhere, the upper level administrative departments have recently issued a number of documents. Yesterday, my mother brought a copy of the evening news for the express purpose of studying with me one of the articles printed inside.

Even though my mother and I have never watched the competition programs all over the dial all that religiously, my mother said, "Under the correct leadership of the superiors, how can we say that individuals will never make mistakes? However, working frequently to comprehend the spirit of the superiors will at lease minimize the chance of committing errors."

When we study a document it goes like this: I read it off and my mother listens, and then she presents her opinion while I listen...

I read the first sentence: "Starting from 1 October, all mass participatory selection events may not be aired over local satellite stations during prime time between 19:30 and 22:30."

My mother said, "Since the upper leadership has already set the general situation for certain matters, why do the masses still blindly get involved and stir things up? It's for real this time, right? Who said that the masses are the real heroes? Listen to what you've read, all mass participatory programs have to be controlled? It'll be the same at the Olympics, so you'd better stay at home! Be careful of causing problems. Can't you feel it on the streets? Aren't Beijing police fiercer now than in years past? Aren't the Olympics just a mission that China's upper leadership needs to accomplish for the world? The masses should take the hint and duck off to one side. A few days ago, didn't you see it? A father, rather than staying down south, dragged his seven-year-old daughter from Hainan to Beijing, running all the way. I saw it in the paper. What was the girl's expression? Intense pain and anger. That father—it's just idiotic torment! Did the leadership tell them you to run? Fools!

I continued reading: "Off-site voting methods such as mobile phone or Internet are not permitted. Speeches by the hosts, critiques by the judges, personal expressions by the contestants, and emotional displays by family and friends must be significantly reduced; they may not make up more than 20% of the total program time."

My mother didn't understand: "What does that mean?"

I explained, "It means that you can't send votes by SMS anymore."

My mother asked, "Then are you still allowed to send them in to the Network News? And if there are hostage situations over there with Putin again, can we send SMS? The last time, didn't CCTV-4 have a guessing contest?"

I continued reading: "Contestants must be in line with the tastes of the masses....Competitors' stage presence, language, hairstyle, and attire must be in line with the tastes of the masses."

My mother laughed. "This one's good, this one's good. For a long time I've thought that the stage presence, language, hairstyle, and attire of Xing Zhibin, Li Yong, and Bi Fujian were out of line with the tastes of the masses. Will they be banned this time?"

I answered, "This won't ban CCTV—only local stations, to give CCTV some space. You'll have to watch them even if you don't want to!"

My mother nodded. "Oh, so that's how it is. Was this thing written by CCTV?"

I continued, "Hosts must not be overly emotional....Hosts may not express personal emotions or likes and dislikes during the program; they may not call attention to personal expression. Their words must be concise."

My mother nodded. "Oh, so this means that 'Art Life' (艺术人生) will be in trouble this time. They know how to excite emotion. Weren't they the first ones to bring out that flavor that all the talent competitions use now? And since the hosts aren't allowed to express their own emotions, then why not just issue a few more documents for them to read off every day. It used to always be like that in the work units. It's easy enough. And making their speeches short is no problem, either. If it doesn't work, then have them use sign language gestures."

I finished reading: "SMS voting is canceled.....from now on, talent competitions may not collect votes by any off-site means including mobile phone, telephone, and the Internet."

My mother said, "During the Olympics, you'd better not send SMS all over the place, and you shouldn't make too many telephone calls. It's probably best not to go outside. Do you think that no one's watching? They're always watching. It's only whether you notice or not. It's a question of general orientation and ideological line."

In line with the tastes of the masses.

Li Yong, the CCTV host shown here, is known for his long locks and flamboyant outfits. Does this description, from Jim Yardley in the New York Times, sound like it's in line with mainstream tastes:

He is dressed in a black leather jacket with studded metal shoulders matched by studded leather pants. His white boots are faux alligator skin. His fingernails shimmer with translucent white polish. His famously flowing mane of brown hair is streaked with gold highlights. He is not your typical Beijing coffee shop patron.

Nevertheless, as He Dong implies, Li Yong is safe, partly by virtue of his employer, CCTV, but also because his shows are defined as lying outside the realm of "mass participatory selection-type shows." Here's part of an interview that The Beijing News conducted with Jin Wenxiong, director of SARFT's Listener and Viewer Center:

The Beijing News: How will you define the "mass participatory selection-type activities" that are mentioned in the Notice? Are they the same thing that people mean when they say "talent shows"?
Jin Wenxiong: The definition will be broader than merely talent shows; it will not indicate just shows like Super Girls or Super Boys, but rather, it will include any regular show that is participatory, open to the public, makes selections, has rankings, and is widespread.

TBN: So does this include shows like "Strictly Come Dancing" [舞动奇迹, Hunan TV] and "Feichang 6+1" [CCTV, hosted by Li Yong]?
Jin: It doesn't include "Strictly Come Dancing," because that program has its own actors; it's a bit like stars playing against type. For television programs, we're aiming at those with huge open casting calls that have level after level of PK, regional competitions, preliminaries and finals, resurrection competitions, and so forth. "Feichang 6+1" doesn't fit either, because it isn't a PK program open to the public where people can vote via SMS. If a program's just a talent performance, then it's OK.

So while contestants on local talent competitions will be straight-laced automatons from now on, Li Yong can continue to express himself on CCTV. Except, of course, for the Spring Festival Gala, where he'll join other CCTV program hosts onstage in an aggressively inoffensive performance far beyond anything SARFT would ever dream of demanding.

Note: 泪洒红唇. It appears that most reporters received this information from someone with a heavy accent; there were several different transcriptions, including "Tears Fall upon the Red Dust" (泪洒红尘), and "Tears Fall upon the Red City" (泪洒红城). Incidentally, SARFT has also ordered the producers of the new Hai Yan drama Blood-Red River (河流如血) to change their show's name to "Golden Earring" (金耳环).

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