Posted by Joel Martinsen on Tuesday, March 4, 2008 at 8:53 PM
Put down the gun
On 29 February, at the end of a notice summarizing the applications for new television shows that had been received registered that month, SARFT reiterated its disapproval of crime dramas (涉案剧):
For several months, the number of crime dramas applying for registration from all regions of the country has rebounded. In order to correct the attitude of series creators, ensure the healthy development of artistic works like crime dramas, maintain clean screens, resist the tide of vulgarity, and establish a positive social environment for young people to grow up into healthy adults, the Administration reiterates the following three points regarding crime dramas: (1) we do not encourage crime reenactments; (2) we do not encourage documentary-style crime dramas; (3) we do not encourage serial crime dramas whose main plotline is a major crime. Producers and broadcast regulators are requested to treat this matter seriously.
It was only last September that SARFT canceled the popular Red Question Mark series, which reenacted crimes committed by women, but apparently that lesson didn't sink in.
Although the Administration has placed limits on crime dramas for many years, it still issues periodic reminders to producers and local television regulators about restrictions on content and broadcast time.
December's monthly notice, for example, contained the following:
This month, we have included in the "memo" column clear rules for the process of reviewing completed TV series in the modern crime genre. Provincial broadcast regulators are asked to adhere to SARFT rules and urge the agencies under their jurisdiction to conduct themselves strictly according to the posted regulations.
And November's notice included this comment:
SARFT's review of the TV show lists revealed that most crime series have too many scenes of negative lifestyles, and they play up and romanticize criminals and criminal acts. The negative influence of such series is considerable negative. Provincial TV bureaus are asked to weigh such series' applications carefully and subject them to strict review.
SARFT has such a hard time quashing these shows in part because audiences really like them, as commentator Xiao Shanshan noted in the Chengdu Morning Post:
SARFT's brought out the ban again! This time, its lance is aimed at crime dramas. Some viewers may be puzzled: crime dramas are good TV—Black Hole (黑洞), Conquest (征服), Sniper (狙击)....the police catch the bad guy—it's so enjoyable! Why can't they be produced? Actually, this isn't SARFT's first ban. First, it cut down on costume dramas, then on imported animation, and shortly after that, it turned its eye on domestic dramas that involved extramarital affairs. On this side, audiences are complaining that there are fewer and fewer good TV shows, while on that side, SARFT continues to issue bans. What's there left to watch on the small screen? Reportedly, the ban on crime shows is so that yellow and violent content won't affect the audience, particularly youth and children. Their starting point is perfectly fine, but it's not critical enough to kill a series over, is it? Educate the youth: isn't letting them see the fate of criminals a kind of education, and a warning? Don't imagine that simply because there aren't police catching criminals on the TV that real life will be free of police catching criminals. Viewers aren't ostriches who believe that they are safe merely because their eyes are closed.
Even when the authorities are successful in putting the brakes on cops-and-robbers action, the same thrills resurface in a different guise. At this time last year, the Xinmin Evening News reported the tricks producers used to get around the ban:
"Counterespionage dramas" have grown so popular not only because of their tense, thrill-packed, convoluted plots and combination of scares, action, mystery, and shoot-outs, but also because, compared with modern cops-and-robbers shows, the majority of them reflect the period of time just before and after the founding of New China, so they can evoke feelings of nostalgia and "red" memories in viewers. But even more importantly, crime dramas have fallen under SARFT's "ban," so counterespionage dramas are actually the same crime and detective shows dressed up in safer clothing. Some have even turned themselves into "red classics" that can air without any impediments whatsoever during prime time.
The only difference is that the PLA takes the place of the police, and instead of catching gangsters, they're going after spies from American-backed Taiwan, or Japan, or the Wang Jingwei puppet government. Set in another time, the stories on the screen become mainstream. Of course, on the other side of the coin is the fact that the across-the-board elimination of crime dramas is a little unreasonable: it's not any one genre that needs to be banned, but rather scenes of killing, violence, and bloodshed.
On the other hand, restricting content has led to a narrowing of television offerings. In a report on a recent conference on television programming, Oriental Morning Post commented on the lack of variety on the small screen:
In 2006, the TV series on Shanghai television were a riot of diversity, as one could gather from the ratings list for the General News and Entertainment channels, on which modern life, epic romance, espionage, and costume drama all showed a presence. But looking at the recently-released rankings for TV series in 2007, we see that the top five shows were all domestic dramas and tragic love stories. On the General News and Entertainment channels, the top five shows were all spy and army dramas. And the number-one rating that The Housekeeper (保姆, aka "Mummy") claimed during last year's Spring Festival turned out to last the entire year, becoming Shanghai's TV ratings champion in 2007. From this list we see that the limitations on crime dramas and the broadcast restrictions on costume dramas, combined with the audience's aesthetic fatigue, have led to a very narrow choice of subject matter for television shows.
This is just one of four problems that the Oriental Morning Post addresses. The first problem raised is a complaint from producers who say that stations aren't paying enough for TV series. Beijing TV, for example, spent just 4 million yuan for the rights to broadcast the premiere of Golden Marriage, a domestic saga from which it ended up making 30 million. Of course, producers have been complaining about getting shafted for years.
A second question concerns the gulf between ratings and public opinion:
Why do TV shows that are popular online and with the public fall short of ideal ratings? ...even though everyone who's seen Soldiers Sortie said that it was faultless, if you came up with a similar-themed TV show, stations still wouldn't buy it, because the mediocre ratings that Soldiers Sortie commanded didn't manage to attract the major group of TV-watchers: middle-aged women over 40 years of age. The people who most like to watch TV series like Struggle and Soldiers Sortie are mostly those with high levels of education, high salaries, and high social standing. This group is a prime target for advertisers. But TV ratings surveys currently don't accommodate for this audience group, so the data for shows like Struggle is incomplete and ratings are poor. TV stations won't risk buying similar shows, so producers won't be so ready to film them.
Finally, the article mentions the plight of TV screenwriters. Following the WGA strike in the US, ninety-two screenwriters in China signed a statement urging production companies to protect their rights (see ESWN for more information).
So if there's nothing good on TV, SARFT is probably not entirely to blame, although it's certainly not helping.
Note: January's notice did not mention crime dramas, but spoke instead to the need for positive, uplifting TV shows that look back on China's three decades of economic reforms: "Endeavor to bring out a batch of contemporary masterworks that enthusiastically sing the main theme of 'The Communist Party is Great,' 'Socialism is Great,' and 'The Reform and Opening Up is Great'."
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