China puts an end to talent shows

Fears of voting and political instability believed to be the reason

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SHANGHAI--China’s media regulators have issued new rules regarding American Idol-style talent contests. In a particularly crippling blow, shows are now banned from allowing viewers to vote for contestants, whether by sending text messages from mobile phones, calling telephone hotlines or voting online on web sites.

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) last weekend announced a ban on talent shows airing during prime time (7:30-10:30pm), starting Oct. 1, 2007. Under the new rules, the programs can't last more than 90 minutes, and broadcasters aren't allowed to offer prizes to attract contestants.

“In the content, shows must spend at least 80% of the time on the actual selection process itself, meaning only 20% of the time can be given to the hosts, the judges, the families, the contestants themselves to speak in front of the camera, and cuts of previously shot footage,” said Alistair Lennie, a planning director at MindShare in Shanghai.

The new rules make it more difficult for provincial satellite channels, which have near-national reach through cable distribution, to gain approval for new programs or recruit contestants who aren't local. The government's announcement also blasted programmers for creating shows with "cheap tones” that are not “positive and healthy.”

Part of the reason for the strict guidelines is that next year with the Olympic Games in Beijing, the world will be watching China and Chinese TV. “Therefore all programs on all channels must be seen to reflect a high quality,” said Mr. Lennie. But the restrictions “mean more approvals and more rounds of discussion. This will stretch lead times, making it harder to guarantee air dates.”

Bad programming isn’t the real reason China is pulling the plug on a format that has become extremely popular in the mainland. The trend started with the second season of Supergirl, a singing contest created by Hunan Satellite TV and sponsored by Mengniu dairy.

Supergirl became a national sensation in 2005, breaking ratings records in China and inspiring dozens of copycat shows. The format is still popular although none have taken off like Supergirl, whose second season finale was seen by 400 million viewers.

But these talent contest reality shows introduced a concept that makes China’s government nervous: voting. That's a dangerous precedent for a population that has never been allowed to vote for its leaders.

In the short-term, the SARFT announcement can also be linked to next month's Communist Party congress, an event held every five years to appoint senior leaders and establish new policies. In the weeks prior to a congress, China’s ruling Communist Party always tightens controls on media and enacts measures to maintain the status quo.

The blanket ban on TV contests is unfortunate but predictable, said Tom Doctoroff, JWT’s CEO, China and area director, Northeast Asia in Shanghai. “Predictable because any mass movement, even one that's purely for entertainment purposes, is considered a threat to the party and will be squelched before long. The press is suggesting that the move is part of an attempt to keep these types of shows civilized but that, of course, is a fleece.”

"Text voting has been a critical factor in accelerating consumer comfort with new forms of technology. Using mobile phones on the spur of the moment, from downloading coupons via blue tooth to locating a restaurant via mapping, will be a big factor in accelerating the dissemination of new forms of active brand engagement,” added Mr. Doctoroff.

The severity of the announcement came as a surprise, particularly to many companies in the middle of airing or creating reality-type contest shows.

“The rules have never been tighter and channels have never been more cautious," said Mr. Lennie at MindShare. His company created a show for Nike now running on Hunan TV called Soccer Prince.

“We have spoken to the head of programming and other senior people, and they all have expressed full confidence that Soccer Prince will not be affected because they have been doing everything properly so far, and the show is already on the air,” he said. “We will, however, be on alert to stay away from anything potentially controversial . We've already removed the planned SMS voting components."

The ubiquity of mobile phones, even in lower-tier markets, is an economic advantage for China that can help accelerate growth.

“The government, in its nervous desire to maintain control of national debate, has, I believe, inadvertently both stymied the development of new media and suppressed a key means of releasing entrepreneurial energies," Mr. Doctoroff said. "It is a pity.”
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