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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chinese Censorship: Beyond the FCC

Regarding the Chinese government’s attempts to rein in microblogging and television programming, the New York Times observes, “Political censorship in this authoritarian state remains absolute.” It is therefore perhaps all the more surprising that bloggers in China have been able to post “whistle-blowing” reports at the expense (and embarrassment) of the political elite. That this has occurred at all suggests that once a Jennie gets out of its bottle, it is difficult to reverse course. This is the traditional Western view. Using television programming as a case study, I submit that the picture is actually more complex than the antiquated "black and white" version may suggest. 

On October 25, 2011, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television ordered 24 regional television stations to limit themselves to no more than two 90-minute entertainment shows per week. The requirement is aimed, according to the ministry, at rooting out “excessive entertainment and vulgar tendencies.” The additional requirement for two hours of news every evening suggests that “excessive entertainment” may refer not only to the decadent sort of programing commonly called “reality shows” in the West, but also to the desire to have a balance of programming available on the public airwaves. Lest the regulations seem too draconian particularly to Americans, having a check on the proliferation of decadent programming spurred on by its low production cost may be something that many Westerners over 30 might favor. That public airwaves are public means that the public, through its government, has a right to regulate the content. For example, American televisions must include public service ads (PSAs) among the paid ads. Even so, the Chinese ministry’s order that television stations ignore audience ratings goes too far in the other direction.

The difficult task of balancing the fact that the airwaves belong to the public with the equally valid point that programming to at least some degree should reflect what people want to see, as per the definition of entertainment, can be evaded by running to either pole; it is far more difficult to manage the competing points. Programming the public airwaves need not succumb to “bottom feeding,” such that one or two segments of the population are effectively allowed to define entertainment for the whole even if this is in the networks’ short-term financial interests (i.e., cheapest programming and largest audience). No constraint on catering to the lowest common denominator can have the effect of facilitating a cultural trajectory into decadence.
At the same time, entertainment cannot be imposed; people simply won’t watch a boring show on public safety. Even forcing people to watch does not mean that they will be entertained. Authoritarianism may seem powerful, but it cannot easily access the inner recesses of the human being. Acting to protect the public airwaves from being monopolized at the expense of the whole need not slip into a control fixation. Indeed, the proliferation of television channels and internet programming even beyond television programming means that particular networks can specialize on specific market segments (either in terms of programming or audience) without segments of the public at large being ignored.

Whereas the Chinese government is too extreme in the authoritarian direction, the FCC in the U.S. could also be criticized for standing by as television networks maximize their profits by catering to “reality show” viewers at the expense of programming that bothers to use actors. Of course, people do not have to watch such shows, but if such programming dominates a significant number of programming venues, the wider public may have a legitimate claim—if not to equal time, then at least to a bit more being offered that is oriented to their tastes. For example, some people might not be edified by Jerry Springer or Jersey Shore—wanting something more like West Wing, LA Law or Boston Legal even though such shows are more expensive to produce. Should the content on the public airwaves be decided by profitability alone?

Imagine, if you will, turning on your television and finding either news shows serving as mouthpieces for certain talking heads, or series “show-casing” low-class, non-actors engaged in “drama” (the term itself has morphed from its ancient Greek association with temple-worship to the absence of any self-discipline, similar to how “professional” has become democratized to fit virtually any occupation). Even though the Chinese government is not known for its lightness of touch, its decision to try to impact programming at the expense of popularity contests might not be as outlandish as it seems. This is my point, rather than that the Chinese government should be defended for having a draconian demeanor. Both consumer demand and the public interest can be reflected in what is broadcast on television. Government regulation along with a market economy is, as of 2011 at least, the best the human race has come up with to accommodate both points. The picture is not black and white (or at least anymore). Perhaps both the Chinese ministry and the FAA could move a bit to the center.

While the market mechanism can function well in allocating non-essential goods and services, it may be vulnerable to succumbing to the “systemic risk” of being reduced to a lowest common denominator functioning like a vortex or black hole of sorts. It is a legitimate function of government to look after the public good, and this can include stepping in when a market mechanism succumbs to some decadent exuberance wherein a minority preference trumps the good of the whole. A government need not be obsessed with maintaining public order and decency (as though in 1950s America) to exercise its duty with respect to the public airwaves.

Sharon LaFraniere, Michael Wines, and Edward Wong, “China Reins in Entertainment and Bloggers,” The New York Times, October 27, 2011.