Television Regulations: New Bottle, Same Wine (With Corrections)

State Administration of Radio, Film & Televisi...
State Administration of Radio, Film & Television offices in Beijing (Photo credit: Toby Simkin)

In the Hutong
Black Lung Control
1047 hrs.

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 From the unpublished manuscript of a guidebook on Chinese television that I co-authored with William Soileau and Jeane-Marie Gescher in 1998, according to regulations then in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.

and

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.

Li Yuanyuan

1. China’s TV landscape, which is mostly regionally run satellite TV stations with a national audience, did not exist back in 1995.
2. In the satellite TV era, SARFT had way more relaxed policies towards foreign shows at prime time. In fact, most TV stations including CCTV regularly ran foreign shows at prime time.
3. SARFT regulations are not laws. SARFT does not make laws, the NPC does.
4. All imported shows and air time must be approved by SARFT first. There is no going around SARFT.

David Wolf

Li Yuanyuan, thanks for your comment. Let me take your points in reverse order.

“4. All imported shows and air time must be approved by SARFT first. There is no going around SARFT.”

Absolutely. I don’t think this was contested either in my piece or that of the New York Times.

“3. SARFT regulations are not laws. SARFT does not make laws, the NPC does.”

You are correct – I was playing fast and loose with terms. I have made some revision to the text to reflect the proper wording.

“2. In the satellite TV era, SARFT had way more relaxed policies towards foreign shows at prime time. In fact, most TV stations including CCTV regularly ran foreign shows at prime time.”

While I’m not sure what you mean by “the satellite TV era,” yes, as I noted, SARFT did have a policy to enforce regulations in a more lax manner, so that up to 50% of total broadcast hours were taken up by foreign programming on different channels, and foreign programming did run in prime time, especially on CCTV-6, which was heavily populated with imported films. Part of that laxity was driven by necessity: the Social Administration Department of SARFT was woefully undermanned for its mandate and did not have adequate personnel to do the job. The Director General of the department made that point to me over coffee one day in 1999. She was harried to say the least.

“1. China’s TV landscape, which is mostly regionally run satellite TV stations with a national audience, did not exist back in 1995.”

Indeed. However the country did have over a hundred local terrestrial and cable channels apart from the growing number of channels CCTV required the cable operators to carry. When the pertinent regulations were promulgated in by the MRFTV 1995 (note that they are referenced in the current SARFT circular from earlier this week) they did not specify mode of transmission. The MRFTV, and later SARFT did, however, periodically issue circulars specifying those requirements, as it did during the process of certifying the first 31 locally-run satellite TV stations in 1996-8. Either way, by mid-1998 China was already into its satellite era, so the main point of my article still stands: the regulations have been in place for a while, and there is nothing particularly new about these two restrictions.

Thanks again, Yuanyuan!

Li Yuanyuan

4. I had to say “there is no going around SARFT” because you say, with the clean room metaphor, that SARFT does not always have the manpower to check on the TV stations, which is not true. All shows and air time are checked by SARFT, every quarter of the year.
2. “Part of that laxity was driven by necessity”–that was not laxity. Those polices simply expired because the subjects of the policies disappeared. Local non-satellite stations were dismantled and re-organized into media groups. Whatever TV policies SARFT had in 1995 were not applicable to new satellite TV stations.
1. The regulations in 1995 by MRFTV is here: http://www.chinaacc.com/new/63/73/143/2006/2/xu50382859302822600223200-0.htm
It does not ban foreign shows but says Chinese shows need be the main fair. My point is, this week’s regulations are new, both to stations, TV producers and the audience.

David Wolf

Li Yuanyuan, thank you for this. Please see below: just trying to learn and correct my mistaken impressions.

4. If SARFT is checking every program on every channel in the country every day, it certainly was not always like that, or the Director General of the Social Administration Department was lying to me back in May 1999 (not impossible, but not unlikely). Which office at SARFT is doing the checking now? Is it all done by SARFT in Beijing, or do the provincial bureaus take part of the effort?
2. The laxity I refer to is during the period of 1997-1999.
2. Looking at the regs again, it specifically says “local TV stations.” At the time, “local” applied to any stations broadcasting via cable or terrestrial. Why did it not apply to local stations that were producing programming locally broadcasting via satellite? Are these not all “local” stations? Also, if those regulations were no longer relevant, why was Regulation 547 not repealed until the issuance of this week’s regulation? Again, seeking to learn, not challenging.
1. I’m digging around in my files for regs between 1995 and 1998, because I remember clearly theat the prime-time ban was in place on both cable stations and the regional satellites by 1998, but until I find them I’m going to put an update on the post to tell people to read through these comments for some important corrections.

Thank you again.

David Wolf

Yuanyuan, the other reg specifically superseded by this week’s regulation was 489. Check here for a copy archived on the website of the Zhongshan Public Information Center. This one clearly spells out a prime-time ban, dated August 31, 1999. I’m still looking for an earlier reg and the 25%, but this one was acknowledged by SARFT to be in effect up to this week.

Li Yuanyuan

4. All TV stations report shows and their percentage of air time quarterly to local TV&Radio bureau who then report to SARFT.
2. You are not a local station if you have a national audience.
1. No.547 does not ban foreign TV shows and No.489 ONLY APPLIES TO RE-RUNS of old TV shows, as the title clears spells out. This week’s NEW BAN mentions those two because they both somehow contradict the new regulation so they have to be abolished for the new rules to be clear.

Li Yuanyuan

That “page” is a terribly written story from an unknown paper. I could give you 500+ “pages” on how 911 was an inside job, but they don’t mean anything.