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China plans to curb 'overly entertaining' reality TV in push for Communist cultural control

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BEIJING, China - China plans to limit reality TV shows and other light entertainment fare shown on satellite television stations as part of a drive to wrest back Communist Party control over cultural industries that are fueling more independent viewpoints.

The order from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, known as SARFT, refers to shows that are vulgar or "overly entertaining." It singles out programs dealing with marital troubles and matchmaking, talent shows, game shows, variety shows, talk shows and reality programming.

Such shows must be largely phased out by the beginning of next year by the country's 34 satellite TV stations, to be replaced with news and cultural programming. The order also bans viewership surveys and the use of ratings as the sole criteria for whether to broadcast a particular show.

The changes aim to "meet the public's demand for varied, multilevel, and high quality viewing," said the order, published Wednesday.

"Satellite channels are mainly for the broadcast of news propaganda and should expand the proportion of news, economic, cultural, science and education, children's, and documentary programming," the order said.

The order follows a Communist Party meeting last week that asserted the need for strengthening social morality and boosting China's cultural influence abroad — a recognition by the party that it is losing its power to dictate public opinion. Social media, especially hugely popular microblogs that encourage individuals to generate content, are also being targeted by government censors.

The crackdown coincides with a bout of national hand-wringing over a lack of public ethics, highlighted by the death last week of a toddler who was struck by a vehicle and left for dead by passers by. Officials believe the promotion of "core socialist values" — a phrase meant to counter calls by liberal Chinese for "universal values" — will bolster social cohesion in the face of rising materialism.

The communique that emerged from last week's meeting called on officials to "focus education and improvement in the ethical field where there are particularly serious problems."

"Resolutely oppose money worship, hedonism, and extreme individualism and arduously correct bad tendencies such as abusing one's powers, fakery, unprincipled acts, and harming others for profit," said the document, published Wednesday on government websites.

It said television programs and other cultural products should be "refined and inspiring," while oversight of the Internet must be strengthened to block pornography, vulgarity, and the "transmission of harmful information."

In a sign authorities intend to pursue online infractions, three people have been punished with warnings or up to 15 days in detention for spreading rumours online, while suspects were being sought in another three cases, the official Xinhua News Agency said Wednesday.

According to the SARFT regulation, satellite channels as a whole can show no more than nine of the restricted programs each night between the prime time hours of 7:30 p.m. and 10:00 p.m., with individual channels limited to two programs each not exceeding 90 minutes in total.

They must also show at least two hours of news programs between 6:00 a.m. and 11:30 p.m., with at least two news programs running no less than 30 minutes each to be shown in prime time.

While satellite television has grown massively as an alternative to the staid government-run terrestrial channels, younger Chinese have increasingly turned to the Internet for viewing domestic and foreign produced movies and television programs. Government efforts to police the Web have focused mainly on blocking pornography, gambling sites, and those featuring politically sensitive content, while moves to restrict entertainment have been largely ineffective.

The new rules emerge from an ongoing push for media to be both politically docile and relevant to a Chinese audience, according to David Bandurski, editor of the China Media Project website at the University of Hong Kong. Heavy restrictions on content may ultimately doom that to failure, he said.

"They can't have it both ways. That is the real conflict. This is not really about culture at all, it's about politics," Bandurski said.

The new restrictions also contain a strong commercial element in that they stand to favour central government broadcaster CCTV, which has been struggling for viewers despite its monopoly on nationwide terrestrial television. Authorities last month had already ordered leading competitor Hunan Satellite to suspend broadcasts of the hugely popular "American Idol" type singing contest "Super Girl," allegedly for running overtime.

The restrictions had been expected for some time and media reports said stations were already tailoring their programming to conform. Most were already cutting contest shows in which viewers vote for their favourite contestant, a concept frowned on by party cadres who don't permit competitive elections or other facets of Western-style democracy.

The producer of a popular dating program on Shanghai satellite station Dragon TV called "Pick One From a Hundred" referred questions on programming to station managers who did not answer their phones.

"I'm OK with the new rule. The authorities have their reasons for issuing it and we just need to go along," Shao Zhiyu said.

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