In the Hutong
Black Lung Control
In the Valentine’s Day edition of The New York Times, Andrew Jacobs describes the new regulations issued yesterday by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), most specifically including two key restrictions: the prohibition of foreign programming during prime time, and the limitation of foreign programming to no more than 25% of the total air time on a channel.
There is some new content in the regulations issued yesterday, but contrary to the NYT headline, the major issues addressed vis-a-vis foreign content are not new: indeed, they harken back to regulations that have been in force since 1995. From the unpublished manuscript of a guidebook on Chinese television that I co-authored with William Soileau and Jeane-Marie Gescher in 1998, according to regulations then in force:
Foreign programming must not be distributed between 6:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., although actual enforcement varies according to the broadcaster.
Foreign programming must not take up more than 25% of total broadcasting time on a station basis. In reality, while the rule is nominally honoured, many networks apply the quota on a channel by channel basis. Unofficial figures indicate that foreign programming may account for as much as 50% of programming.
The rules governing television are not increasing, as the Times suggests. What seems to be increasing is the degree to which they are openly flaunted by broadcasters. Let me explain.
China has had a wide range of laws and regulations restricting media (and many other industries) in place for a long time. What varies is not the regulations, but the degree to which they are enforced. Laws and regulations, as such, are not de facto restrictions of behavior so much as they are tools for the government to use when political conditions demand it. For that reason, what SARFT does on a fairly regular basis is issue notices designed to remind broadcasters that the regulations exist, and signal to them that enforcement looms. Usually, such initiatives come either when things get too far out of hand (i.e., 25% becoming 50%, as suggested above), or when something happens to make it an issue (Chinese producers complaining about access to TV time, or, say, a leadership change.)
This is not dissimilar to the way I get my ten-year old to clean his room: I let him know an inspection is coming, and by the time I get there, behold! A clean room! The requirement to keep his room clean always existed. What was lax was the enforcement. What caused me to issue the edict to my son was either the room was getting too messy, or guests are coming over.
Jacobs quoted one Chinese citizen posting his disgust with the regulations on Weibo: “They should really put Sarft in charge of food safety and have the State Food and Drug Administration regulate TV shows — that way we’ll have safe food and good entertainment.”
I would wager the person posting this was either very young or unborn when the regulations were actually issued. The issue that has provoked SARFT (an underfunded, undermanned, out-gunned agency if there ever was one) is the same that caused the food problem: China is ruled less by policy than law, and political expedience trumps enforcement – until the political expedients change.
UPDATE: Please read the comments conversation between Li Yuanyuan and myself. He raises some excellent points to rebut my point of view. He disagrees that enforcement was ever lax, suggests that it was always tight, and he explains why. We do not share the same memory of events, but he does point out that the prime time ban on foreign programming and the restriction of quantity of content was not in the 1995 Regulation #549.
- China set to reduce number of foreign TV shows (passionsjustlikemine.wordpress.com)
- China to curb TV entertainment (telegraph.co.uk)
- China clamps down on foreign telly on its channels (go.theregister.com)