China TV Struggles to Break Free of State

China’s TV industry is the focus of a pair of articles at the Financial Times. The first describes the efforts of China’s second largest broadcaster, Hunan Broadcasting System, to commercialise its organisation and expand beyond its home province.

In 2009, the government allowed provincial TV networks in principle to build their content production and marketing operations into commercial businesses, as long as they separated them from news and broadcasting, which needed to remain under government control ….

Last year, HBS set up Mango TV, a separate company under which it wants to run its new media, content production and marketing operations. “We plan to transfer all assets related to these areas to Mango before the end of this year,” says Ouyang Changlin, HBS director and party secretary.

“News operations and the broadcasting platform will remain at Hunan TV and will not be commercialised. But the two will be linked in so far as our broadcasting platform will get priority access to the content produced under Mango ….”

Last year, HBS entered an agreement under which it took over content production and gained management rights for Qinghai Satellite TV, the broadcaster of a poor north-western province whose ad income is only a fraction of Hunan’s. The news operations and broadcasting platform remained in the Qinghai government’s hands. Shanghai Media Group, another leading regional broadcaster, has entered a similar deal with Shandong Education TV ….

Analysts are also pessimistic about the prospects for actual merger activity. “It is very unlikely that the government would allow consolidation between the broadcasters across provincial borders in the near term, because they would first have to change how they regulate the industry,” says Ms Redl of CMM.

Even if content production is removed from the government’s direct control, it will remain subject to politically-driven broadcasting “guidelines”, which have shown signs of becoming stricter ahead of the 90th anniversary of the Party’s foundation. From the second FT article:

In the latest evidence of tighter political controls, the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television told HBS and other television stations that benchmarks for measuring the success of programmes had to change. It said broadcasters should let “quality, responsibility and values” guide their programming.

In 2005, the regulator told HBS to stop running ”Super Girl”, China’s first televised talent show which was the closest thing the country had to American Idol, and on which the station made its name and fortune.

Some officials saw the programme, which many people would consider innocent, as subversive because it propelled individuals to fame based on audience votes. It demonstrated the power of popular opinion in China – a constant concern for the Communist party in a country where people cannot elect their leaders ….

Mr Ouyang, who also serves as HBS’s Communist party secretary, denied rumours that the regulator had asked the station to follow Chongqing TV, the broadcaster of a western Chinese municipality which has replaced commercials with “red” programming.

“The government may like ‘red’ programmes, but if nobody watches your programme, that’s good for nothing,” he said in defence of his pro-market approach.

SARFT attracted ridicule earlier this year with its guidelines discouraging time travel themes on TV, but the Global Times leapt to its defence.


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