For Reality Shows in China, 'Rules Have Never Been Tighter'

Officials Ban Consumer Voting, Contestant Prizes and Other Elements That May Threaten Country's Status Quo

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SHANGHAI ( -- China's media regulators are imposing new restrictions on popular "American Idol"-style talent contests and reality shows. In one crippling blow, viewers will be banned from casting votes for contestants.
Super Reach: The 2005 finale of 'Supergirl' was seen by 400 million viewers.
Super Reach: The 2005 finale of 'Supergirl' was seen by 400 million viewers. Credit: AFP
Until now, Chinese could vote for their favorites by phone or online, a dangerous precedent for a population that has never been allowed to vote for its leaders and one that made China's rulers nervous. The crackdown is also a swipe at the provincial channels that have fielded the most successful talent and reality shows, to the detriment of national broadcaster CCTV.

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) announced a ban starting this month on talent shows airing during prime time, between 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Under the new rules, the programs can't be longer than 90 minutes, or offer prizes to attract contestants.

The severity of the announcement surprised 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 Alistair Lennie, a planning director at MindShare, Shanghai. His company created a show for Nike now running on Hunan Satellite 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."

'Cheap tones'
The rules make it harder for provincial satellite channels, which have near-national reach through cable distribution, to get new shows approved 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 China's government is very conscious that next year's Olympic Games in Beijing will focus the world's attention on China. "Therefore all programs on all channels must be seen to reflect a high quality," said Mr. Lennie. But the restrictions mean more approvals and rounds of discussion, and longer lead times, he said.
And avoiding bad programming isn't the real reason China is pulling the plug on a popular format. Talent-oriented reality shows took off in China almost five years ago with "Superboy" and then "Supergirl," singing contests created by Hunan TV. "Supergirl's" second season, sponsored by Mengniu Dairy, broke ratings records in China with a season finale in 2005 seen by 400 million viewers.

Democratic TV
But allowing people to vote for the first time, even for their favorite young singer, made China's leadership nervous. The timing of the crackdown by SARFT is likely linked to this 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."

Although the government sees its citizens' growing familiarity with voting in contests as a threat, it has had advantages for marketers.

"Text voting has been a critical factor in accelerating consumer comfort with new forms of technology," Mr. Doctoroff said.
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