China to Ban Foreign TV During Primetime

Getty Images

The new rules — which also sharply limit the participation of Hollywood talent in China's enormous TV industry — continue Beijing's broad crackdown on the content industry.

Escalating an aggressive crackdown on the content sector, China plans to drastically cut back on Hollywood participation in its massive television market.

According to a new set of draft rules released Thursday, Beijing regulators will outlaw the broadcast of foreign TV shows during primetime and limit the volume of imported content that streams on China's fast-growing video platforms.

As justification for the rules, regulators cited the "protection of social stability" and the need to guard against content that "deviates from core socialist values."

China has worked to limit the "corrupting influence" of foreign content on the small screen for years, but the new rules appear to be the most stringent to date by far. Under the new rules, non-Chinese content will be limited to 30 percent of total air time both on streaming platforms and on broadcast TV.

The participation of foreign talent and industry professionals will also be curtailed. Foreign crew — whether writers, directors, DPs, actors or other roles — will be prohibited from comprising more than one-fifth of total staff on a Chinese TV drama. Also, a show's writer and director will be forbidden from both being non-Chinese, and the leading actor and actress cannot both be foreigners.

The National Radio and Television Administration published drafts of the new regulations Thursday. These are available for public consultation until Oct. 20, at which point they are expected to become law.

The swipe against foreign TV represents just the latest stage in an ongoing cleanup of the Chinese entertainment and culture sectors.

In March, a sweeping shake-up of government structure eliminated China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), the semi-independent body that had overseen the country's media and entertainment industries for a generation. Control over content was instead placed directly in the hands of the Communist Party's Propaganda Department — a move many interpreted at the time as an ominous sign for the Chinese entertainment industry's already steeply curtailed freedoms of expression.

An array of regulatory actions have followed, including aggressive caps on celebrity pay (with strong words of condemnation directed at A-list talent for encouraging "money worship" among the youth), costly interventions in China's multi-hundred-billion-dollar gaming industry, a crackdown on movie ticket platforms and an ongoing inquiry into tax evasion in the film industry (the latter connected to the mysterious disappearance of China's biggest female star, Fan Bingbing). 

Sources close to state-backed distributor China Film Group recently told THR that the censorship approval process for imported Hollywood films also has slowed and become far less of a sure thing under the new regime. Under the old system, if a senior party leader took umbrage with any given censorship decision, blame could always be directed at the government functionaries within SAPPRFT, which was a state entity, rather than a Communist Party one. But under the new structure, party officials themselves bear direct responsibility for every action taken — consequently, the censorship process is said to be driven with more paranoia and second-guessing than ever before.

Possible examples include Beijing's bizarre block of Disney’s Christopher Robin from theatrical release and Warner Bros' stalled attempts to score an opening for hit rom-com Crazy Rich Asians.

In the case of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh's central role in the film is said to be to blame. Pooh bear has often been likened to China's President Xi Jinping in online memes in China because of the pair's supposed physical resemblance. Although the memes were deployed with affection more often than critique, the government has shown no sense of humor about its supreme leader — all mentions of Pooh are now aggressively censored.

Crazy Rich Asians follows a wealthy Singaporean family rather than a Chinese dynasty, but its implicit celebration of lavish living would appear to clash with Xi's multi-year anti-corruption campaign and the recent smackdown on celebrity "money worship."