By Peter Feuilherade
China has threatened to crack down on "vulgar reality shows" this year, in a fresh drive to clean up what domestic viewers can watch on their TV screens.
Shows have mushroomed since a talent contest based on American Idol
But the surge in audiences watching competition-based reality TV suggests that the moral crusade will face opposition not just from viewers but also dissenting voices in China's media industry.
"There have been too many reality shows on our TV screens. Many are low-quality, low-brow programmes, only catering to the bottom end of the market," said Wang Taihua, general director of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).
"The government must strengthen supervision of entertainment programmes, and restrict the number of reality show programmes to upgrade their quality," the official Chinese news agency Xinhua quoted Wang as saying at a conference of provincial broadcasting and film industry bosses.
The state would step up efforts to provide guidelines for programme design, censor programmes before broadcast and monitor them during transmission, in order to "curb the trend of pursuing higher audience ratings by blindly catering to public sensationalism," Wang concluded.
Cashing in on the success in 2005 of Hunan TV's "Super Girls" song contest format, based on "American Idol", TV stations across China have produced more than 500 reality shows, ranging from music to martial arts.
According to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper, "every network now has a prime-time contest show, and reality programming popular overseas has been widely copied on the mainland.
Analysts and viewers have criticized networks for relying on similar programme design and, in some cases, content in poor taste." "Many viewers have complained that some competitors do their utmost to reveal their bodies," Xinhua noted.
In December 2006, China Central Television (CCTV), the biggest state broadcaster, decided to ban reports about celebrities' private lives as part of an in-house campaign against "vulgarity on the screen" and "low-brow programmes".
CCTV pledged to adhere to its vocation of "spreading advanced culture" and "actively advocate mainstream values in line with the times," Xinhua news agency reported on 18 December.
"Successful and profitable"
But some Chinese academics and media analysts say the market, and not the government, should decide what is suitable content for TV. Several delegates at this week's conference defended reality TV shows as a successful and profitable format.
"In a market economy, we should encourage this kind of experimental move as long as they do not break the law or offend moral criteria," said Yu Guoming, the vice-dean of Renmin University's School of Journalism and Communication.
Zhang Yiwu, a professor in Beijing University's Chinese Department, commented: "We should not lose sight of the fact that reality show contests encourage the spirit of participation among ordinary people." Other critics predicted that stepping up censorship would achieve little.
Efforts to regulate the market "based on an outdated ideology of controlling the media... will have little impact on improving taste, because the programmes bring in huge profits and are popular with audiences," said Miao Di, a professor at the Communications University of China.
Billion-dollar value chain
The media industry is now China's fourth largest business.
"Advertising revenue has increased in volume 20 times in 10 years, topping the 100bn yuan ($12.8bn) mark in 2003, with average annual growth of 35%," the Chinese publication Beijing Review reported in November 2006.
And reality TV is one of the fastest growing sectors. The SARFT regulator itself appears to be in two minds about the merits of reality TV.
A SARFT report said competition-based reality shows were becoming "a new force in the mainland's culture industry".
One example was Shanghai-based Dragon TV's four popular reality-style programmes, said to have a combined value of about $500m.
These programmes had generated a further $1bn for other businesses in Shanghai, in a chain of value-adding that extended from the producer to advertising agents, telecom operators, mobile phone message service providers, entertainment industry design companies and broadband websites.