CCTV's gatekeepers discuss TV drama censorship

Sun Haiying and Lü Liping in Passion

Chinese television drama turns 50 this year. On 15 June, 1958, Beijing TV aired a twenty-minute live broadcast of "A Bite of Vegetable Pancake" (一口菜饼子), a story of the hard life in pre-revolutionary China.

To mark the occasion, a feature in the current issue of Oriental Outlook magazine takes a look at the history of TV drama and how programs make it to air. This includes an interesting article on the workings of CCTV's censors.

Much of the time, it seems like SARFT is to blame whenever people are upset with film and TV censorship (in fact, Oriental Outlook interviewed a SARFT censor on that subject earlier this year). But television stations are ultimately responsible for what they broadcast, so they too employ censors to eliminate objectionable content.

The definition of objectionable content varies: CCTV has strict standards, but local TV stations often get away with airing envelope-pushing content and borderline-scam infomercials until there are enough complaints to draw a smackdown from the central authorities.

The two censors interviewed for the Oriental Outlook article provide a number of entertaining examples of things that displeased CCTV, including:

  • A ribald folk tune had to be removed from a period piece;
  • The mother of a Japanese soldier in a war drama expected him to fight to his death in China, implying that the Japanese people fully supported the war;
  • None of the four main characters in a drama about car racing was motivated by the love of the race;
  • A series in which a party secretary was accused of rape only to be cleared in the final episode could mislead viewers who didn't watch the show all the way through to the end.

But the article also notes that censors are becoming increasingly attentive to the overall watchability of the dramas they review: they realize that viewers aren't going to get excited about a poorly executed series simply because its politics are correct.

How CCTV Censors TV Dramas

by Chai Aixin / OO

On 6 July, 2008, in a dimly-lit room at the CCTV office building, four workers stared intently at a large screen.

It was Team #4 of the CCTV Head Editorial Office Film Inspection Group, at work reviewing a TV series.

"We watch a dozen or so episodes every day, up to 16 on the busiest days, and we work two or three days a week. Every month we watch about four series," Feng Wanyou, one of the team's experts, told Oriental Outlook during an interview.

Three years ago, Feng retired from CCTV's Head Editorial Office and was subsequently hired back to work as a censor.

When a series is submitted to CCTV, it must first pass an initial screening by the director and executive editor of the Film and TV Department, after which it is sent to the Inspection Group for a more detailed review.

The Inspection Group consists of fifteen members, including Feng, and is divided into four teams, each of which reviews different shows.

During the review process, each team member is given two preliminary review forms. The first has areas to score ideological expression, artistic standards, and expected viewership. The second requires a 1,500-character appraisal including a plot summary, artistic critique, recommendations for revisions, and a final recommendation. Finally, each team comes up with an average score calculated from the individual sections or generated through discussion.

Any show scoring 90 or above in this process may be broadcast on CCTV.

If the show is to be broadcast during prime time (7:30 - 9:30 in the evening) on CCTV-1 or CCTV-8, then it needs to be reviewed again following any revisions.

2008 marks fifty years of television drama on CCTV. A reporter with this magazine spoke to some of the experts who are responsible for reviewing TV shows for CCTV in order to retrace the winding road that Chinese television drama has followed from this unique perspective.

We're not picking at nits, we're identifying flaws

The interviews began with the hit TV series Years of Burning Passion (激情燃烧的岁月, 2002).

"Years of Burning Passion was a flawed work. In too many places, the old cadre felt out of place after the war was over. He disliked new things and he didn't really use his autumn years to do anything useful. It wasn't upbeat enough. It might have made older cadres unhappy," Chen Shanjia, a member of the inspection team responsible for reviewing that series, told this magazine.

Chen joined the CCTV Film Inspection Group in 1990, and reviewed television shows until he retired two years ago.

The team recommended revising Passion, but the producers found that difficult because of the sheer number of places that needed to be edited. Ultimately, the series didn't make it to CCTV; it played on local TV stations instead, where it became wildly popular. Some people at CCTV regretted the situation, but there were other senior staffers who continued to believe that the series was flawed.

Several years later, the 2005 hit TV series Drawn Swords (亮剑) resulted in split opinions within CCTV when it came up for review.

"The executive editors of the [CCTV] Film and TV Department thought it was good, but I thought it needed revisions. They said that 10% could be changed, but I wanted 30%. It was a back-and-forth battle." Chen was responsible for reviewing that series, too.

Chen gave his opinion of the widespread use of profanity in the show: "Cursing imperialism is acceptable, but in the show, crude language was always on the lips of the characters, from Peng Dehuai and Li Yunlong on down to ordinary soldiers. Even when buying movie tickets they exchanged curses with audience members. Senior officials exhibiting this sort of character is inappropriate.

His recommendation was to remove the crude language and other rude details, cut out a storyline in which Li Yunlong and another leader both fall in love with Tian Yu and fight over her in a military hospital, delete a scene in which Li visits his future father-in-law, a democrat who expresses dissatisfaction with the Communist Party, and remove scenes that portray the Japanese soldiers as refined and polite.

The show was revised once according to these recommendations, and after a second review by the censor team, it was returned for further revisions. It passed after a third review.

"Some people say that we're all old Marxist-Leninists, that we wield our weapons looking for targets to shoot at, but it's really not that way at all. We're not picking at nits, we're identifying flaws and helping to fix them. We have principles. We're not inhuman," Chen told Oriental Outlook.

The version of Drawn Swords that ultimately aired on CCTV-1 during prime time ran to 24 episodes. The CCTV-8 version was more permissive, running to 28 episodes, while the complete version available for sale on DVD is 30 episodes long.

Questions of sex and orientation

In the film review process, sex is a major focal point, and this is true for TV shows as well.

Chen Shanjia told Oriental Outlook that TV shows face more stringent standards than movies because shows that air during prime time will be seen by many underage viewers.

The hit show Golden Marriage (金婚), which aired on local stations in 2007, was not submitted to CCTV.

Chen said that if CCTV would definitely run in to problems if it were to broadcast Golden Marriage: Zhang Guoli's character has an affair which, though it is entirely platonic, continues throughout the series; it would need to be deleted. And there are lots of scenes set in bed; although no skin is shown, the sex is still implied.

A reporter with this magazine previously addressed this issue with film censors, learning about the standard for films: frontal nudity is not permitted, while rear nudity cannot be shown in close-up. In television, however, essentially none of this is permitted. Lengthy kissing scenes are removed, and revealing photographs hung on walls that appear in the frame are blurred out.

After scenes suspected of being "erotic" are cut, dialogue is usually retained to preserve plot continuity. Shots are either of scenery or of the exterior of the room.

In CCTV's detailed list of revisions for the hit 2007 series Journey to the Northeast (闯关东), we read, "In Episode 8, the lewd folk song Eighteen Strokes is inappropriate even though it has been altered. Please revise: showing that Wuye wants to conquer Xian'er is sufficient. In Episode 15, some of Hongjie's language is too blunt, such as 'selling her bed.' Please revise. Please adjust or delete language and scenes involving the brothel. In Episode 24, there is a scene in which Xia the shopkeeper smokes opium, and mentions delicious people say it is. Please reduce or remove."

The final item here is primarily an orientation issue concerning the education of young people.

Feng Wanyou told Oriental Outlook that he once reviewed a show which had the following scene: several youths were stealing fuel from the gas tank of someone's car, putting it into a plastic bag, and then using a straw to breath in the fumes. It was like they were doing drugs and enjoying it. "Although they weren't really doing drugs, it still had to be deleted because it wasn't good for young people."

Propaganda orientation is another focal point.

"We saw a TV series that showed the Japanese bombing of Chongqing. In it, Chang Kai-shek and Soong Mei-ling were very kind to students during their inspection of a middle school, behaving like our kindly Premier. Perhaps there really was such a situation. While characters should no longer be as stereotyped as they were in the past, we must still seriously consider what propaganda should be like when things are broadcast on CCTV," Feng said.

"Also, a Japanese soldier pulled out a prayer card just before he died on the battlefield. The character 'death' was written on the card, which was given to him by his mother before he left Japan for China so that he'd arrive in China with the determination to die. This had to be deleted. Did the people of Japan really support the war that much? That's not good propaganda."

Even so, on the matter of orientation, the experts on the inspection teams often find it hard to deal with every situation.

A show once broadcast on CCTV that involved the Fragrant Concubine contained the seemingly-insignificant line, "Xiangfei is the daughter of a rebel leader." After it was broadcast, many people from Xinjiang called up CCTV to express their displeasure.

"We never wanted to insult the Fragrant Concubine. These details are difficult to judge during the inspection; if we handle them improperly then there'll be problems," Feng told Oriental Outlook.

Controlling proportions

"The issue of proportion is part of contemporary dramas as well as shows involving major, important themes (the proportion illustrates the orientation)," Feng Wanyou informed the reporter, drawing on his many years of experience inspecting TV shows.

One show described a county committee whose leader had been hospitalized and whose second in command was in power. Of the five committee members, four had problems: some were corrupt, another committed rape, and one was a mob boss. Only the honest vice-secretary held up, all by himself.

"Such an exceptional circumstance might exist in real life, but if CCTV-1 were to broadcast this show during prime time, to the outside world it would seem as if this is what the Communist Party of China is really like. It was inappropriate and had to be changed," Feng told Oriental Outlook.

He brought up another example: in one series, four out of five former classmates had affairs, two families had been broken, and the one remaining individual decided to pursue love but not marriage. In addition, when children in three of the families started dating while they were still young, two sets of parents said nothing and only one set opposed. And the parents who acquiesced were educated, while the ones who opposed were rude and uneducated...

"The direction that these details point is obvious. Young directors and screenwriters are relatively opinionated these days. They say this is reality, so why shouldn't they be able to reflect it? But in the end we still had them revise it. We emphasize family happiness and social harmony. It's understandable if one family is broken because of an affair, but we need to give people the impression that the majority of families are OK," Feng said.

Another example: in some shows, thieves speak in the Henan dialect.

"This is inappropriate. We had some of the shows change it to standard Mandarin. The result may not have been as artistically inspired, but we can't let the issue of dialects generate regional conflict," Feng said.

He recently reviewed a show involving race car drivers. "The four main drivers all had ideological problems: instead of the competition itself, their motivation was money, revenge, or showing off for their girlfriend. There was too much darkness. It wasn't light, and watching it was depressing," Feng said. "The principle now is to revise as much as possible so that there won't be any problems when it is broadcast."

But some shows are impossible to revise enough to pass the censors.

He once reviewed a TV show in which a municipal party secretary was "suspected" of rape. In the first 20 episodes, all the evidence pointed to that individual, but the final episode revealed that it really was someone else who looked just like him.

"If the first 20 episodes were broadcast, then this individual would be lambasted over the course of ten days: how could a party cadre be so evil? But that's not so easy to fix: if you cut too much, or if the secret is revealed in the beginning, then the overall effect will change. In the end we could only say that the show was inappropriate for CCTV," Feng said.

Each year more permissive than the last

In light of his experiences over 17 years on the inspection team, Chen Shanjia feels that standards for China's TV censors are gradually relaxing.

"In the past, TV shows primarily involved leaders and major revolutionary subject matter like the economic reforms, and they were highly political. As gatekeepers, we consciously or unconsciously inspected politics, with an emphasis on orientation, mainstream ideology, and propaganda. But we didn't really concern ourselves with aesthetics and watchability."

Later on, Chen gradually discovered, "It wasn't practical for us to handle politics and ideology but not appreciation, because then no one would watch. There were some shows where we couldn't find any problems with their orientation, but they were pretty mediocre."

To this day Chen still recalls reviewing a show that portrayed China's shipbuilding industry. "It was all meetings from start to finish: meetings in the factory, meetings on the outside, and husbands and wives even had meetings in bed. Everything was political dialogue."

But at the time, there were some leaders who approved of the show because it was "well-oriented," and it ultimately made it to air. Chen finds it hard to forget that experience, because the program "was artistically barren."

"It was all slogan-shouting, and that affected the ratings. We ought to review shows with the audience in mind, letting them enjoy what they're watching without being negatively influenced by it." Said Chen, "Later, things gradually progressed toward a balance of politics, ideology, and aesthetics."

In his years as a television censor, Chen recalls a few shows as if he reviewed them yesterday.

In 1999, Chen was responsible for inspecting Holding Hands (牵手), a hit show that told the story of an extramarital affair.

"I was impressed when I first watched it; the orientation was quite clear. In the end, the third party withdrew, and the show adopted an attitude of kindly criticism and assistance toward the unstable elements within the family. Artistically, it was well-crafted. It was a superlative unification of ideology and artistry," Chen said.

In 2003, Chen reviewed Steel Roses (铿锵玫瑰), a series about the lives of female police officers.

"The theme was good, but they were dressed strangely and wore high heels." It was up for CCTV-1 at the time. Chen had some reservations: "What if someone complained?" He even was prepared to pull the show immediately if anyone did so.

Ultimately, Steel Roses became the first TV drama to top the Network News in the ratings.

In 2005, the CCTV-8 drama My Own Swordsman (武林外传) was another of Chen's satisfying inspections.

When he finished watching it, "Many people were afraid of martial arts fiction. My feelings were that the form was unique and, thinking about it, it had literary merit. Like Don Quixote, it satirized and mocked those martial arts romances. It was generally optimistic, positive, and non-violent; it didn't have any special effects; and aesthetically it wasn't bad." So it was sent off to CCTV-8 for broadcast.

At a subsequent meeting, a leader criticized My Own Swordsman together with Sunny Piggy (春光灿烂猪八戒) as being "too egao." Angrily, Chen asked the leader, "Did you watch it closely?"

Two years later, Chen felt proud of himself when My Own Swordsman won the Feitian Award for Outstanding TV Drama.

Like Chen Shanjia, Feng Wanyou feels that Chinese TV drama inspection is "getting more tolerant every year, because ideology and aethetics are both changing."

"Seven or eight years ago, gunshot wounds spurting blood, knives piercing all the way through flesh, kissing, and bare midriffs weren't allowed, but it's much more permissive now." Feng told Oriental Outlook, "There are actually very few disqualified programs [unacceptable for broadcast on CCTV]."

To insure that ideology and aesthetics keep up with the changing times, CCTV's censor group is bringing in younger people. Not long ago, Chen and a few other senior staffers older than 65 retired from the censor teams.

In addition, Feng believes that from the perspective of the inspection process, China's TV censors are gradually opening up as the market develops.

If a drama has registered its script with SARFT before filming starts, when it is complete, "whoever broadcasts it is the censor."

"Registration is for scripts, but in actuality the drama that is shot may be substantially different from the script in both detail and character orientation. CCTV censors what it broadcasts, while local TV stations handle their own broadcasts. This is another expression of openness and decentralization of authority," Feng said.

Chen told Oriental Outlook that CCTV has the most rigorous inspection standards. "Regional stations that are carried on satellite [to all parts of the country] have more relaxed standards, while local stations that aren't carried by satellite are the most permissive. Lots of TV dramas that can't be broadcast on CCTV go directly to local TV stations."

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There are currently 1 Comments for CCTV's gatekeepers discuss TV drama censorship.

Comments on CCTV's gatekeepers discuss TV drama censorship

CCTV dramas are for old style northerner cadre like my father who has same taste as Chen's. However, for younger generation and most southerners, they don't watch CCTV at all.

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