Wang Gang’s (王剛) idea for what would become the most-talked-about show in China was simple: Throw a spotlight on this country’s bright young things as they court each other on stage to pop music and audience applause.
The men boasted of their bank accounts, houses and fancy cars. The women were svelte and sassy, dousing suitors with acid putdowns. However, mixed into the banter were trenchant social issues that urban Chinese from their 20s to 40s grapple with, if not always so publicly: living together before marriage, the unabashed pursuit of wealth or the government’s one-child policy.
“Through this show, you can tell what China is thinking about and chasing after,” said Wang, a veteran TV producer.
The show, If You Are the One, broke ratings records in the first half of 2010. More than 50 million people tuned in. The sauciest contestants became sensations — one aspiring actress famously rejected a man offering a bicycle ride by saying: “I’d rather cry in a BMW.” The show attracted huge interest from Chinese overseas; some students on US campuses even filmed their own versions. It increased the nation’s cultural influence, which China’s leaders crave.
However, reality TV proved too real for the censors. Disturbed by the program’s revealing portrait of Chinese youth and the spread of copycat shows, they threatened to cancel it. Producers raced to overhaul the show. They brought on older contestants and added a third host, a matronly professor from the provincial Chinese Communist Party (CCP) school.
“We’ve had more restrictions on expressions on the show, to eliminate remarks that could have negative social impact,” the wiry Wang, 45, said one morning as dozens of screens flickered behind him in a control room in Jiangsu Province.
Then regulators formulated a sweeping policy that took effect on Sunday and effectively wipes out scores of entertainment shows on primetime television. The authorities evidently determined that trends inspired by If You Are the One and a popular talent show, Super Girl, had gone too far and they responded with a policy to curb what they call “excessive entertainment.”
That a dating show could help set off the toughest crackdown on television in years exposes the growing tension at the heart of the CCP’s control of the entertainment industry.
For decades, the party has pushed TV networks to embrace the market, but conservative cadres have grown increasingly fearful of the kinds of programs that court audiences, draw advertising and project a global image not shaped by the state. Television, after all, occupies a singular position in the state’s media arsenal: With its 1.2 billion viewers and more than 3,000 channels, it is the party’s greatest vehicle for transmitting propaganda, whether through the evening news or staid historical dramas.
“A conflict has arisen: On the one hand, they’re pushing for the building of a commercial industry, but on the other hand they wonder if this commercialization has led to an overall decline in cultural quality and moral cultivation,” said Yin Hong (尹鴻), a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing who studies television.
The party’s definition of “entertainment shows” encompasses game shows, dating shows and celebrity talk shows. As in the West, they are cheap to produce, but earn high ratings and advertising revenue, which is critical since stations get little or no government subsidies. Now, the new rules, which were announced in October last year, are forcing TV executives and producers at 34 satellite stations across China to cut many entertainment shows from their lineups to limit what regulators describe as “vulgar tendencies.”