SARFT pulls all commercials at two TV stations

This week's chengyu is 杀鸡儆猴 - "killing the chicken to warn the monkeys," or punishing one individual as a warning to others.

That's the general public perception of SARFT's order revoking the right of two local TV stations to broadcast commercial advertisements. The two stations, one in Ningxia and another in Gansu, had repeatedly ignored requests from the Administration to pull medical ads and misleading infomercials. Ningxia's station has replaced its commercial ads with PSAs about combating piracy and promoting family planning. Gansu's station is not broadcasting any ads at all right now.

But they're certainly not the only ones that have been violating the rules; many observers feel that SARFT is just making an example out of two insignificant stations to convince everyone else that things have gotten serious. The administration has been tightening its truth-in-advertising rules through series of regulations and clarifications issued over the past year or so. One key notice, jointly issued with SAIC last August, banned five categories of ads: weight-loss, breast enlargement, and height increase products, and all drugs and medical equipment. Some local stations replaced late-night medical ads with infomercials for watches, but for many, things did not change at all. Friday's Mirror reported that even after the ban in Ningxia and Gansu, local stations in some areas were still broadcasting prohibited commercials.

Why? It's all about money. According to the Mirror, only the top five cable channels have filled all of their advertising slots; of the remainder, 70% of ad time remains unsold. Late-night TV time sells for as little as 1000 yuan a minute or less on local TV; when a company buys up huge chunks of time with questionable infomercials, many stations figure it's worth the risk, particularly because the authorities haven't really followed through on their regulatory threats in the past.

Translated below are a number of (mostly skeptical) opinions on SARFT's action. In the China Economic Times, Zhou Chengxiong, head of the Academic Research Department at Peking University's Institute of Cultural Industry, identified four reasons why local stations risk defying SARFT in their advertising practices:

First, local TV stations must make a living. Because of continual changes in SARFT and local policies, many local TV stations and channels are finding it ever harder to survive. Reasons include: CCTV is too strong, all of its stations cover the whole country, and the national authorities consciously or unconsciously limit competition between CCTV and local stations; Many local stations have restrictions placed on their own programming and their broadcast times, so their revenue space is compressed....

Second, punishment of violators has been ineffective. Though SARFT has repeatedly issued all sorts of regulations to local stations, it has never taken effective steps to punish violators...

Third, local protectionism serves as a bodyguard for violating stations. We have not seen a single local TV station leader receive any punishment from the local party or government for violating advertising broadcast regulations. This emboldens local TV stations in their broadcast. Local TV station heads eat from the bowl of the local government, so there is nothing that SARFT can do to them. Although TV stations are not administrative organs, their position is not inferior to some parts of the government, for they are not only the voice of the government but one industry within developed by the local economy. For this reason, when local stations violate regulations, the local government typically will not carry out any punishment. When the state government issues punishment, the local government will try any means possible to protect the station, and some punishments have a hard time sticking.

Fourth, there is insufficiently strict oversight of TV stations. We can see that the current punishment of local TV stations comes from the State Administration; the existence of local protectionism means that the local radio and TV authorities cannot oversee and punish local TV stations. There are several thousand stations of all levels across the country; SARFT has just several hundred civil servants, and even if they all neither slept nor ate, there would still be no way for them to oversee all of the country's stations.

In Beijing Business Today, Fu Kai tried to give SARFT the benefit of the doubt:

For a TV station, advertising makes up practically its entire economic resources. Revoking the right to broadcast commercials is tantamount to death by a thousand cuts. It hurts, and you've got to keep producing programs and paying salaries while your income is gone. SARFT's really going to great lengths here.

However, I discovered when reading the Notice that these two TV stations received such "cruel punishment" today because several months ago they had ignored SARFT's warnings and punishments. I can't help but wonder - will this "banning order" really be carried out in full?

At the same time, I also noticed that SARFT has previously issued a whole series of rules regarding the broadcast of advertisements, not directed just at the two stations in Ningxia and Gansu, but at the whole nationwide audience. But there's been no shortage of time to watch ads for "miraculous cures" and "astonishing breakthroughs."

Particularly in the late-night hours every day, programming on cable channels all over is surprisingly identical. Looking at SARFT's rules, it appears that not a single ad should be able to be broadcast.

Perhaps killing these two "chickens" won't be enough to scare all of the "monkeys," if the "chickens" can truly be killed this time. Nevertheless, we still welcome the murderous intent that has exploded out of SARFT this time.

The Qingdao Financial Daily argued that the monkeys ought to be killed along with the chickens:

Bluntly point, prior instances of SARFT cleaning house ultimately fell into a "crying wolf" pattern: a lot of bluster, and an insubstantial order sent down. The Notice on Rectifying Radio and TV Medical Information Services and TV Shopping Programs issued jointly by SARFT and SAIC took effect on 1 August, 2006, and it clearly stated: broadcasters that violated the regulations would be temporarily deprived of their right to air commercials. But after the Notice was released, out-of-line ads maintained their same crazy pace, continuing the same all bark and no bite result as in times past. Ten months later, SARFT finally made good on its promise, and carried out the punishment of revoking two stations' right to air commercials. In one light, this should not be taken as an act of desperation.

To some degree, the two stations refused to mend their ways precisely because the practice of airing the prohibited ads was so common - "the law can't punish everyone," so they thought their chances were good. All TV stations are equal, so since everyone has violated the regulations, then the ones who are punished ought to be all of those violators. Execution of the law does not just choose easy targets, and it doesn't just make examples. There's no reason to treat these two small, non-influential TV stations as "chickens," first killing them and then giving a warning to the "monkeys" so that they have an opportunity to mend their ways. This is unfair.

Of course, there are so many violators that it is entirely appropriate for punishment to be given to some first and others later. So we anticipate that the order to halt commercials at these two TV stations is just the start of an "advertising storm," rather than its conclusion.

An op-ed at Great Wall Online asked "What happens when SARFT orders a halt and things don't halt?":

This writer noticed that this is a ban issued by SARFT alone. Prior to this, what happened after the bans issued jointly by SARFT and SAIC? Yunnan and other satellite TV viewers can still see Cheng Fangyuan and Hang Tianqi as guests on ads for "Maximum Organ" bust enhancing system; the two of them will tell you in all certainty that the bust enhancement effect is higher than 98%, the safety coefficient is 100%, and in general, all foreign women use Maximum Organ. And another time, Jiang Shan, on Guangzhou TV's movie channel, continued to ask viewers: why don't you drink calcium plus zinc syrup? Calcium and zinc supplements together - two for the price of one. And the actress Shi Ke exclaims on Jiangsu TV: "Flowers and Dream" combines whitening with blemish-removal - a success the first time you use it.

The notice previously issued by the two organizations when they joined hands had these results, so what will the results be when SARFT goes it alone to issue punishments?
In the past, the Shanghai Administration for Industry and Commerce launched an across-the-board overhaul - all medical ads that had star endorsement were banned. SAIC declared five types of advertising content illegal, and ads for health products and drugs that featured stars fell into the scope of the "hard strike." These are all stringent measures; now with one word SARFT has called a complete halt and has cut off the financial avenue for these two TV stations - is it feasible? No mechanism for implementing punishments, no mechanism for finding accountability, no linkage with the normal operation of the stations and the performance records of the people in charge - just an order to halt. I fear success will be difficult.

And a QQ reader picked up by Tencent urged SARFT to be fair:

Look at what TV stations are playing today: News! TV series! Variety shows! What's left? Most of it is ads! And the majority of those are commercial ads! If you take away their commercial ads, then how can they play programs? (even though I detest ads myself.)

As for the stations' broadcast of illegal ads, I think that if you're going to rectify things, then the majority of TV stations across the country will have to stop broadcasting. Actually, it's enough for the TV stations to strengthen the effectiveness of their advertising oversight and editing, and then ad agencies and the companies should adopt a responsible attitude toward consumers. But there's really nothing wrong with SARFT's actions. At any rate the common people are the victims, and advertisements to a large degree influence the common people's outlook. However, if you're going to rectify things then the whole thing needs to be rectified. You shouldn't mess around with local TV stations. You should take action against the fake advertisements on CCTV first and cut them all.

UPDATE (2007.06.26): SARFT issued an order lifting the advertising ban at the two station at midnight on 25 June. (link)

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There are currently 1 Comments for SARFT pulls all commercials at two TV stations.

Comments on SARFT pulls all commercials at two TV stations

haha,local tv stations have a black day
if in canton,can watch tvb atv.
i think it's better that other province.

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