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Controlling Chinese Television

The 2003 World Press Freedom report put out by the group Reporters without Borders ranks China 161st among 166 nations, somewhere between Iran and North Korea. But Chinese television fare, at least, no longer consists of the prudish melodramas and clumsy indoctrination programs of the Maoist past. Casual observers of today's freewheeling offerings of sex, crime, drugs, violence, and banal game shows on Chinese TV might come away with the impression that most of the shackles have been removed from televised content.

To be sure, this impression disappears if one focuses on explicit political content. Viewpoints that deviate in the slightest from Party doctrine are still absent from Chinese TV. Despite the surface diversity of programming, the monolithic control of political discourse has changed little since the 1950's.

But the sheer volume of China's TV programming makes maintaining such control difficult. China Central Television (CCTV) alone has 12 channels (many broadcasting 24 hours a day), and employs about 3,000 people. CCTV falls under the control of the Propaganda Department and the Ministry of Radio, Film, and Television. Numerous provincial and municipal TV stations are also required to carry some CCTV programming. This combination represents a vast administrative undertaking. Given the staggering amount of programming needed to fill the time slots, content monitoring must be implemented with maximum efficiency.

Censorship has been made easier, not more difficult, by the government's decision in the 1990's to shift to a free-market strategy for entertainment products. Big subsidies to TV stations were mostly discontinued, and the new "sink or swim" approach forced TV outlets to compete for advertising revenues, resulting in programming with greater mass appeal.