Asian Broadcasters Straddle a Diverse Web of Rules
GUANGZHOU, China: The half-naked male models wildly gyrating in a German fashion show make the cut on this locally produced Guangzhou city television station. Across town, on the more widely dispersed provincial station, covering all of the southern China province of Guangdong, they would not have a prayer.
The same goes for "Ultraman," the animated Japanese series judged too violent by the provincial station, but allowed to air to the 300,000 cable viewers of the local Guangzhou affiliate.
Far from being monolithic, Chinese television presents a welter of erratic censorship, unenforced regulation and unpredictable latitudes of program content and standards of freedom that vary from province to province and city to city.
In the official line on Chinese television, "the audience is the market and the government is the master," according to Xu Xiongxiong, general manager of China Central Television's program agency. The reality is somewhat more flexible. As the broadcaster elaborated, "the government intent is not to ban foreign programming, but to have it under control."
Throughout Asia, as the region braces for a rising tide of new channels, satellites and foreign programming, Western and Asian television producers are engaged in delicate balancing acts, attempting to tap into the burgeoning Asian audience without offending local morals and restrictive governments.
"Three years after STAR-TV brought the satellite age to Asia, governments here are grappling with the invasion, trying to minimize the impact," said James Y.C. So, Hong Kong's secretary of recreation and culture. At stake is an exploding market, where average annual economic growth is around 10 percent and English- language programming alone is predicted to jump five times within the next four years, according to David Murrell, Asia media analyst with KPMG Peat Marwick.
The region's viewing public is estimated at 322 million households, accounting for around $300 million of the $3 billion total of overseas revenue to U.S. television producers.
Most governments in the region limit television imports to between 15 and 30 percent of program schedules - with the standout exception of Taiwan, where foreign programs account for 80 percent of air time, according to Susan Schoenfeld, media analyst for Hong Kong-based Advisors for International Media. But with the number channels doubling each year, the appetite for all kinds of programming is taking off, limited largely by the program prices that are woefully inadequate by Western standards, falling as low as $750 for a half-hour variety show in China, for example.
Robert Chua, an ambitious Hong Kong broadcaster whose China Entertainment Television is scheduled to launch this spring in Mandarin, plans to sidestep government censors with a mix of wholesome family entertainment. "No sex, no violence, no news" is the motto of Mr. Chua's CETV.
Keeping up with the censors in this rapidly shifting environment can be a confusing business. Dick Lee, general manager of Malaysia's HVD Film Production, complained of censors snipping a segment of an actor perched atop a tall building. "They construed the scene to mean he might jump," explained Mr. Lee, "and suicide conflicts with the image they want to present of Malaysia."
The use of a handgun in filming requires police permission and a policeman must be present on the set to simulate firing. HBO Asia, the pay-TV film channel, is forced to cut scenes considered too violent or sexual, although the"restrictions have not been as onerous as we expected," said William Hooks, HBO Asia's managing director.
"It would be idiotic not to respect the local cultures," he continued. Instead of trying to refute charges of cultural imperialism, Mr. Hooks advised Western producers to stress the new jobs and technological transfers the expansion of local television industries creates.
After initially being cast as a leading cultural imperialist, Hong Kong-based STAR-TV is staging a turnaround.
In China, where the network dropped BBC World Service Television to placate government objections and a largely unenforced ban on satellite dishes remains officially in effect, the service claims to reach 30 million homes via cable. In Malaysia, where the ban on satellite dishes is rigorously enforced, Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, previously one of STAR's most vocal critics, is close to permitting the service to air in the country in return for substantial control of the telecasts.
"Cultural imperialism is simply bad business," said Gary Davey, STAR chief executive. "It makes no money." STAR nevertheless stands to post a loss of at least $12 million this year, according to Rupert Murdoch, head of the network's parent News Corp.
"The issue of cultural imperialism is greatly exaggerated," said S.K. Fung, chief executive of TVB International Ltd., Hong Kong's largest network. "It's a smokescreen to protect local television production business. We've been broadcasting an English-language channel side-by-side with a Chinese channel for 27 years and we didn't become Englishmen."