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HONG KONG – In the morning of Dec. 1, a new memo appeared in the “policies and laws” section of Chinese provincial channel Jiangsu Education Television’s online portal: it contains the official decree of how the authorities would deal with broadcasters who violated the country’s television-regulating laws.
There’s nothing new about Chinese media organizations carrying such edicts in full on their websites. Only this time it’s more an act of self-flagellation than line-toeing: it’s exactly along the lines of this decree that Jiangsu Education Television found itself taken off air by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, for what the top-ranked media regulator described as a deliberate transgression of its own remit as a pedagogical channel.
The cause of the clampdown lies with a leaked video of a foul-mouthed row between stars and spectators of a racy game show called, perhaps appropriately, Bang Bang Bang: still available for viewings on YouTube, the clip shows model Gan Lulu (well-known for her flesh-baring outfits) and her agent-mother aiming expletive-laden missives at an audience member who challenged Gan for undermining the country’s morality during the recording of the show on November 24.
As the Chinese blogosphere went wild about this incident, Sarft stepped in, on November 28, to first order the broadcaster to suspend the program – and then, one day later, to switch itself off on November 30. It’s not likely the channel will be shuttered for good – the rules stipulated a suspension ranging from seven to 30 days – but this latest episode actually brings to focus the problems China’s censors face in dealing with a medium spiraling fast out of control.
For the past decade, the Chinese cable television industry has grown at a phenomenal rate, to the point of actually rivaling – if not eclipsing – the influence of the country’s national broadcasters, Chinese Central Television (CCTV). And the main driving force for these private channels have been reality TV, as knock-offs of Blind Date, The Apprentice and American Idol fuelled a nation’s desire to see real lives being made (and sometimes cruelly knocked down) on screen.
And this desperate war for ratings and ad revenue soon got ugly – literally, as shown in the Jerry Springer-like moment on Jiangsu Education Television, a channel established in 1996 with a mission to make programs geared toward the needs of school-age youth. But racy spectacles featuring scantily-clad starlets were hardly what the authorities had in mind when they approved of the founding of the broadcaster, which is now known in the swish abbreviated form of JETV on the web.
Still, the so-called Gan Lulu incident has provided the state regulators with an opportunity to flex their censorial muscle. Sarft officials have long criticized the domination of reality TV on Chinese screens – this is a form which thrives on confrontation, something which sits uneasily with a regime bent on foisting harmony among its citizens to sustain some kind of social stability in a country bristling, albeit still mildly, with discontent.
Last year, Sarft chiefs had already spoken publicly against these programs, and concerns were raised further perhaps by repeated incidents of online scandals. In May, a public furore broke out when a 32-year-old contestant passed out on stage during an episode of Tianjin TV’s job-hunting program Only You, after he was repeatedly mocked for his appearance and the educational qualifications he attained in France. State-backed newspapers, such as the political-barometer Global Times, ran editorials criticizing the program.
What is of equal concern is how Sarft’s move would go beyond its self-proclaimed moral-purification motive. According to the Associated Press, human rights activists have reported the ban on JETV as putting a halt to more than 30 programs – most of which are not spectacles as Bang Bang Bang. Fears are that Sarft can and will easily mete out the same to broadcasters delivering content which censors see as offensive, but in a political way.
Then again, Only You is still going strong. It remains to be seen what silencing Bang Bang Bang would bring to a scene still bustling with programs about people shooting their mouths off.
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