China tightens online video rules

New round of restrictions precedes party anniversary

BEIJING -- China's booming online video landscape was covered with a potential wet blanket this week in the form of new content licensing rules from government regulators.

In a consolidation of its control over online video content, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television expanded its governance of TV and film into the online arena. This means that hugely popular online video sites will not be allowed to host movies, TV shows or cartoons that don't already have a SARFT license to show in public.

"The move could spell a major shake-up for the online video industry," Beijing-based media consultancy China Media Monitor-Intelligence said in the lead editorial of its newsletter Thursday.

China's growing online video industry -- led by such sites as Tudou.com and Youku.com and followed by countless imitators who regularly get busted and shut down -- was worth an estimated 131 million yuan ($19 million) in the fourth quarter of 2008 alone, CMM-I said.

But Victor Koo, founder of Beijing-based Youku, said the SARFT circular, dated March 30, is a "clarification" rather than something new, and one mooted "to keep the industry thriving."

SARFT's move is the latest in a string of government attempts to control what the public can see and who's making money from it.

YouTube was blocked in China last week and remains unavailable in Beijing, reportedly after it hosted an allegedly falsified video of Chinese cops beating Tibetan monks.

Chinese consumers choose online video as the best place to find what does not play on TV or in theaters because of strict censorship of content that Beijing deems "unhealthy" or "vulgar" in the often vaguely worded edicts SARFT occasionally sends to domestic media companies.

"Once the new rules kick in, a lot of the most popular content on online video sites will be illegal, such as many Korean and Taiwan TV drama series and variety shows. Popular American TV series such as 'Gossip Girl' and 'Prison Break' will also be illegal," CMMI said.

SARFT also instructed online video site operators to raise the level of their own self-censorship, guiding them to block unlicensed music videos, short films and user-generated clips.

Koo, whose site was one of the first private firms to get an online video license a year ago said he believes in "industry self-discipline."

The SARFT circular spells out a laundry list of content considered off-limits, from things that "distort" the official view of Chinese history and culture, to depictions of sex, drug use or violence.

China has no film rating system and thus films must be family-friendly if they hope for theatrical distribution. Martial arts hero Jackie Chan's latest film, "The Shinjuku Incident," will, for example, not show in China due to its gritty depiction of gang life.
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