China Introduces Stricter Rules on Drama Content

04/03/2016

The first page of the new television production guidelines. The first page of the new television production guidelines.

Suspended: web series Addicted about young love between homosexual classmates.Suspended: web series Addicted about young love between homosexual classmates.

Suspended: web series Go Princess Go, a fantasy story about a modern day playboy who encountered a magic force which not only sent him back to an ancient dynasty but also gender-transformed him to a princess.Suspended: web series Go Princess Go, a fantasy story about a modern day playboy who encountered a magic force which not only sent him back to an ancient dynasty but also gender-transformed him to a princess.

This week an eightpage document, jointly issued to broadcasters for internal circulation in December 2015 by the China Television Drama Production Industry Association and the China Television Production Committee of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television of the People’s Republic of China (“SAPPRFT”, formerly known as “SARFT”), has been leaked online and widely circulated in China.

The document, generally referred to as “the New Guidelines”, prohibits certain types of content and other subject matters in all scripted programmes, both on TV and online.

The New Guidelines have caused a degree of panic in the drama industry as a wide range of storylines and scenes are now prohibited, including:

  • “Abnormal sexual relationships” which, according to the New Guidelines, includes homosexuality;
  • Storylines that “promote unhealthy marriage values” such as extramarital affairs and onenightstands;
  • No “harmful feudal superstitions” such as witchcraft, reincarnation and spirit possessions;
  • Crime series are not allowed to depict investigative methods or details of the crimes for fear of “criminals learning counterinvestigative tactics”;
  • “Underage romance, smoking, fight scenes”;
  • No onscreen characters should have “exaggerated or eccentric style” as they may “undermine social morals and pose bad examples for the young audience”.

These guidelines have triggered heated discussions on Chinese social media. TV professionals and viewers have voiced concerns over limitations of creativity and ideologies. Classic costume and fantasy dramas such as Journey to the West, The Legend of the White Snake were raised in counter argument as even these celebrated dramas adapted from classic Chinese literature would not have pass the New Guidelines.

Since 2015, SAPPRFT has also issued a number of rules and regulations restricting imported drama content in order to encourage home-grown productions. Regulations such as:

  • Imported drama content can only be broadcast at least 6 months after its original premier time.
  • A drama series cannot be broadcast on more than 2 satellite channels.
  • During the months of September and October, only drama with patriotic and anti-fascist subject matter is allowed to be aired.

OTT platforms such as iQiyi and Youku, which have until now enjoyed relatively more freedom than the traditional TV broadcasters, will soon face the same censorship and restrictions implemented by SAPPRFT.

The Chinese government’s clamp down is not only aimed at scripted programmes, but also extends to non-scripted programmes. Hot off the press is the news that SAPPRFT is now prohibiting all TV programmes having children involved on primetime and access primetime slots, which sees hugely popular reality shows such as Daddy Where Are We Going (Hunan TV) new season being axed.

It is widely speculated that this series of rigorous and draconian restrictions reflects the government’s desire to retain control in the age of internet and social media and to “restore” positive moral and values of the general public of China.

However, such changes could also bring opportunities, and international companies do not need to despair just yet. As the Chief Executive Officer of Zespa Media, Jean Dong, points out, “it may look like there is not much left that we can do especially in drama productions, but the other side of the reality is that we are looking for good formats and IP more than ever, and there are now more ways to adapt and develop them in the fast expanding media market in China”. For scripted formats, “if your story is solid, has no strong political elements or conflicts, with clever plots and twists, and most importantly, characters with universal humanity, then it already has the potential to be adapted to work in China”. “Most of all, keep an open mind, work closely with your trusted local partners in China and do the adaptation together”. “We also see it as a kind of challenge to prove our real creative mettle – being able to adapt and create under any circumstances or restrictions, we want to work with people who can rise up to it”.