Tue, Aug 10, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Self-censorship takes over on Chinese television

Does `cultural inertia' keep TV content safely stagnant? Stay tuned for more of the same, a Beijing consultant says

By David Moser


The 2003 World Press Freedom report put out by the group Reporters without Borders ranks China 161st among 166 nations, somewhere between Iran and North Korea.

Yet Chinese television fare no longer consists of the prudish melodramas and clumsy indoctrination programs of the Maoist past. Casual observers of today's freewheeling offerings of sex, crime, drugs, violence and banal game shows might think that most of the shackles have been removed from televised content.

To be sure, this impression disappears if one focuses on explicit political content. Viewpoints that deviate in the slightest from party doctrine are still absent from Chinese TV. Despite the surface diversity of programming, the monolithic control of political discourse has changed little since the 1950s.

But the sheer volume of China's TV programming makes maintaining such control difficult. China Central Television (CCTV) alone has 12 channels, many broadcasting 24 hours a day, and employs about 3,000 people. CCTV falls under the control of the Propaganda Department and the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television. Numerous provincial and municipal TV stations are also required to carry some CCTV programming.

This combination represents a vast administrative undertaking. Given the staggering amount of programming needed to fill the time slots, content monitoring must be implemented with maximum efficiency.

Censorship has been made easier, not more difficult, by the government's decision in the 1990s to shift to a free-market strategy for entertainment products. Big subsidies to TV stations were mostly discontinued, and the new "sink or swim" approach forced TV outlets to compete for advertising revenues, resulting in programming with greater mass appeal.

Thus, in a strategy mirrored throughout the cultural sphere, the government simply relinquished much control over the moral component of TV content. The anti-pornography saohuang campaigns carried out in the 1980s and early 1990s are a thing of the past.

Perhaps realizing that an entertained and distracted populace is less likely to complain about public policy, the party has allowed entertainment programming to follow the Western model, lessening the need for micro-managed censorship.

The result is a de facto separation between news and everything else. This conveniently allows the authorities to control news programming with an iron hand while relegating the bulk of programming to a looser and less labor-intensive monitoring system. Of course, given China's highly politicized atmosphere, politics can leak into even the most innocuous areas of discourse, and the many talk shows and audience participation formats necessitate a less intrusive but nonetheless effective system of content regulation.

The first surprise I encountered while working for CCTV as a program planner was how minimal this system is. Top-down directives and outright censorship are rare. Few written guidelines outlining forbidden or sensitive topics exist. No constant memoranda dictate content. Party officials don't hover over each step of the process, and virtually no cutting of completed products is carried out on party orders.

On the surface, writers, directors, and performers seem free to plan and produce shows with little or no supervision or monitoring. So how does such a system block offending content?

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