Too Popular for Their Own Good: China Restricts TV Singing Competitions

Why the government doesn't like singing shows -- even though ratings are sky-high.

An advertisement for The Voice of China's Season 2 Premiere (via Weibo)

Last year, the popular television show The Voice of China dominated chatter on social media, edging out the case of Bo Xilai, a political scandal of epic proportions, to become the number-one trending topic on Weibo for weeks on end. Having witnessed just how popular a domestic reality talent show can be, China's major provincial television networks have begun competing for viewers of their own, perhaps hoping their shows will be the next Voice of China. Besides The Voice of China, which will air its second season, and Super Boy, once the most popular talent show aired by Hunan Television, over 20 reality talent shows were due to be launched this year, some of which would air simultaneously, fiercely competing for viewership.

But their hopes and best efforts may not have a chance to bear fruit.

On July 24, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT, formerly SARFT) announced that it would implement "regulations and controls" on the nation's singing competition shows so as to "avoid the monotony of television programs, provide more options for the audience and satisfy people's diverse demands for television shows."

In the eyes of SAPPRFT, all television programs must "avoid extravagance, luxury, sensationalism and flashy programming, as well as formats that cause too much excitement." In order to accomplish these goals, from July 24 on, no satellite television networks are allowed to produce new singing competition shows; shows that have finished filming but have not yet been launched are to be pulled until the summer vacation period is over; and shows already airing should adjust their scheduling to avoid conflicting with other programs.

A day after the announcement of these regulation, the Guangming Daily, another Communist Party newspaper in China, issued an editorial criticizing the quality of domestic reality talent shows and describing how badly they were in need of reform.

While some have embraced SAPPRFT's latest move -- Weibo user @小叮chichi wrote it was "great that I no longer have to put up with endless threads about singing contests," -- a greater number of Chinese people have expressed their disappointment, if not anger, with the regulations. Although SAPPRFT attributed its decision to "the consideration of feedback from the viewership at large,"most people rejected this attempt to claim representation. As user @老WANG-同志 stressed, "I am not 'the viewership at large,' nor am I 'the masses of People,' SAPPRFT better not try to 'represent' me."

Some seemed fed up with SAPPRFT's endless regulations. As Weibo user @星逸文化陈新峰 remarked, "A positive word for [the new policy] is 'regulation,' but in essence, it is monopoly and oppression. Lacking competitiveness, [Chinese Central Television] can take advantage of administrative measures to gain an advantage, but is there any value in that victory?"

Others trusted that television would continue much as before despite the new regulations. User @风弄 offered up his reasoning: "If the audience doesn't like the show, the ratings will drop; if the ratings of a certain kind of show drop, television networks will in turn cut similar programs or adjust the shows to attract more viewers. Just have faith in the market and the audiences themselves."

The market, as reflected in the ratings, seems to welcome such talent shows. When The Voice of China had its Season 2 premiere on July 12, it drew 5.55 million Weibo users into discussions about the show, and the hashtag #The Voice of China remained the number-one trending topic on Weibo throughout the three-hour show. Meanwhile, 3 million social media users also tweeted about Super Boy while it was on air. Time will tell what, if any, effect SAPPRFT's new regulations will have on Chinese viewers' love of vocal artists pursuing their dreams.

This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.