Want to Get on Chinese TV? Better Check Reality at the Door

Larry Rinaldi From Beijing

By Published on .

"Resist voluntarily and diligently."

This is the opening statement of new guidelines from China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), which vets all of China's TV shows and movies with "do's and don'ts." Themes to avoid include outbreaks of infectious diseases and ethnic problems. Content creators must also avoid nouveau-riche mansions and the pursuit of luxury lifestyles, and they're told: "Do not dramatize too much."

Well, this watch list pretty much rules out any realistic portrayal of China's modern society.
Larry Rinaldi
Larry Rinaldi is chief operating officer of JoyMedia Group, an independent media company in Beijing.


The missive ends by warning, "Creators of content should take seriously their social responsibility to educate and lead youth and less-educated groups." Appealing to the lowest common denominator is the reason Chinese TV is so dreadful, shabby and ultimately non-exportable.

Despite the government's continuing effort to curb programmers' freedom, many in China push the envelope, but always with patience.

The system operates like a courtroom, and SARFT enforces its own rulings. Every show needs a "permit to distribute," in effect, a license to broadcast. Producers submit a final, ready-to-air show. SARFT appoints a judge, responsible for issuing a "decision" about whether the show can air. The judge appoints a jury foreman and six to eight jurors, usually retired Communist Party members. It's sort of like having your grandparents as the arbiters of what you -- and everyone else in your country -- can watch on TV or at your local cinema.

Verdicts include: "Kill it outright"; "don't encourage"; and "encourage with revisions." A fourth option, "outright approval," is extremely rare.

Production companies are guaranteed a written response in 27 days, and have unlimited right of appeal. That's where the fun begins, since with each appeal, they risk receiving a different or additional set of issues to address.

Any film or TV show with a foreigner in the cast, for example, goes through an extra vetting process. Producers can also be refused outright if there are too many typos in their subtitles. There is as much art in getting a program past China's censorship as there is in making the film.

One guideline is no surprise: "Limit the portrayal of filing complaints against the local government or government officials."
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