Friday, January 6, 2012

China v. Television

I complain as much as anyone about how too much of current American television stinks, that many channels have been hijacked by cheap reality and talent shows that cater to the lowest common denominator. How I wish we were rid of all the "American Idol" clones and the gosspmongering dating shows and the brainless Kardashians and the cast of "Jersey Shore." But if the government stepped in and mandated that the number of these shows be cut back, I'd be the first to protest.

Because this is exactly what's going on right now in mainland China. The government recently introduced new programming guidelines that reduced the amount of entertainment programming shown on Chinese television by two thirds, down to 38 hours a week from 126. "Lowbrow" reality, talk, and talent shows are the chief targets, being replaced by more news and informational programs. Recent remarks by Chinese president Hu Jintao indicate that the move is part of a new effort by the Chinese government to rein in the power of Western-style entertainment. He recently remarked, "We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration."

Now let's be clear on what we're talking about here. Among the shows sustaining the most criticism are "Super Girl," a popular talent program that was yanked from the airwaves back in September for retooling, and the dating show "If You Are the One," profiled in this revealing New York Times article. They seem harmless enough to Western eyes, but the worry is that these programs place too much emphasis on what the Chinese media watchdogs consider to be frivolous activities, can be too honest about certain social issues for comfort, and build up cults of celebrity and influence that are outside the government's ability to control. Remember that this is the same Chinese government that railed against the use of time travel in drama programs, because they often inluded inaccurate or altered portrayals of history, and regularly frowns on fantasy programming for being too escapist. For them, entertainment is a secondary concern to pushing the "socialist core value system."

Against this lot, is is any wonder that Western programming is making such inroads? The secret of America's cultural power isn't much of a secret. We have an entertainment industry that is devoted to one primary objective: to make money. To that end, it does whatever is necessary to draw in viewers and keep them happy, be it appealing to the lowest common denominator or pumping millions into the development of fancier special effects. Hollywood may have its biases, but there is no real ideology being pushed aside from reflecting the tastes of the audience it wants to attract. If American values tend to crop up a lot in our television, it's because it's being programmed to Americans.

We have our own media watchdogs, and our own television regulations and requirements, such as the Children's Television Act that has full service television stations provide a certain number of hours of education and informational programming. There are content standards enforced by the FCC, but it only acts rarely in extreme cases. So the stations and networks and content producers are free to put shows that people want to watch on the air, in order to deliver more eyeballs to the advertisers who pay the bills. Out of this system comes a lot more crud than quality, but let's not sell ourselves short. American television is in the middle of one of its richest periods in history, turning out lots of quality shows like "Mad Men" and "Louie" that rival anything that came out in a movie theater this year.

Now American television shows don't get much play on Chinese television stations, because of strict regulations on foreign content. However, a recent influx of Western formats for shows have allowed Chinese localizations to be made of everything from Disney's "High School Musical" to "Britain's Got Talent." Nowadays this is a common practice, with many American and British shows spawning multiple versions all across the globe. In China, producers get a leg up by working with the framework of previously established hits, learning how to mount big productions on par with what you see on Western television. But even with most of the content of these shows carefully retooled to fit Chinese sensibilities and anything too Western stripped out, the government gets nervous when they become too popular and successful.

China talks up becoming a new media powerhouse, but they only want to do it on their own terms They don't want to give the Chinese people what they want, but to dictate what they should want from the top down. Even if television programming originates in China, from Chinese creators, and becomes a genuine hit with Chinese audiences totally removed from any Western influences, if it doesn't fit into the nation-glorifying, culturally conservative narrative that the Chinese government wants to promote, it's suspect. The whole spiel about Western cultural hegemony is a smokescreen to continue stifling free expression and creativity, a stance that is often counterproductive to the ends that the government claims to want to achieve. They want to build up Chinese media to compete with those who might become more influential that they are, but not at the expense of the state-controlled propaganda machine.

So the Chinese media may be doomed to plod along in a state of perpetual cultural stagnation, forever scolding the Chinese audiences who would rather watch "Idol" knockoffs than yet another highbrow historical drama that toes the party line.

Almost makes you grateful for Western crap television. I'd rather watch "Downton Abbey" over the Kardashians any day, but I do appreciate having the choice.

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