TV contest shows too popular

New rules limit their influence and reach

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BEIJING--Nervous about the growing popularity and fervor surrounding American Idol-type TV contests like “Supergirl,” China’s government is reining in provincial broadcasters with new rules that will make the shows blander, less profitable and possibly even force them off the air.

Regulations announced by China’s State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) this month require contestants to be at least 18, prohibit broadcasters from awarding prizes to winners, and require contestants to behave conservatively (no more suggestive dancing on stage or “vulgar” hair, baggy clothes and bare midriffs). And judges are forbidden to embarrass contestants on air.

The new rules also limit the number of contest shows allowed on the airwaves each year and forbid local TV stations from running them at all, reducing the number of rural consumers who can watch the programs. And broadcasters are banned from copying the format of existing shows.

The changes follow a surge in copycat shows hoping to mimic the success of last year’s wildly popular Mongolian Cow Sour Yogurt Supergirl Contest, a talent competition known as “Supergirl” and sponsored by Mengniu Dairy. The company is believed to have paid about $1.7 million to get its name on the show.

Knockoffs were inevitable. More than 400 million Chinese watched “Supergirl,” making it the most successful show ever. It spawned thousands of blogs and chat rooms and turned the winner, a 21-year-old tomboy from Sichuan province, Li Yuchun, into a national celebrity.

The series was a financial windfall for the provincial broadcaster behind it, Hunan Satellite Television in western China and its dairy sponsor, which used Supergirl to promote a new sour yogurt drink whose sales more than tripled to $185 million. China Mobile also prospered. Inspired by passionate grass roots campaigns for the top contestants, more than eight million Chinese paid about two cents, a sizable amount in local terms, to send a text message by mobile phone to vote for one of three Supergirl finalists.

Numerous shows hoping to emulate Supergirl’s success, like Alibaba’s Yahoo Star Search, a talent search show underway with Zhejiang Satellite TV, are now in development, which makes the government nervous on several levels. The authorities are reacting against the sensationalistic, slightly rebellious nature of the contest programs, which promote individualism and personal achievement. The winners become idols with extreme influence on Chinese citizens. Supergirl also set a dangerous precedent by introducing Chinese to the concept of voting.

Another concern is that the government “does not want to see the more extreme kind of reality TV programs and televised contests you see in the West,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, co-director of Standards Group, an independent ad agency in Beijing. “They are particularly concerned about the effects of such shows on children.”

The Communist party is not the only organization displeased with the sudden rise in popularity among China’s smaller broadcasters. Ripples caused by Supergirl are transforming China’s media landscape, until now dominated by state-run China Central Television (CCTV), which takes in a large share of the $11 billion in revenue generated by China's radio, film and television industry in 2005, according to SARFT figures.

But the heavy-handed national broadcaster risks losing its grip on the market to provincial channels that are proving more adept at coming up with innovative programming ideas that appeal both to viewers and marketers.

Supergirl’s success, for example, resulted from the unpredictable nature of the show and the refreshing personality of Ms. Li, whose spiky hair and outgoing personality represented the antithesis of the demure beauty queens on CCTV, said Quinn Taw, Beijing-based chief strategy officer for WPP Group’s GroupM media divisions. “It marked the first time a satellite show has really broken out of its own province, did very well around the whole country and was promoted nationally. That’s a big challenge to CCTV’s dominance.”

The new regulations give credence to long-standing industry rumors that CCTV is using its influence with SARFT to prevent Hunan from developing a new season of the show, or keep the show off local cable stations to curb its distribution.

“The other reason behind the regulations is probably that SARFT wants to send a message to Hunan TV to avoid being too cocky about the runaway success of SuperGirl, which has prompted many commentators to compare CCTV unfavorably to Hunan TV,” said Mr. Goldkorn. “I believe the regulations will dampen enthusiasm for such contest shows a little, but that the format is here to stay.”

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