Who Banned Roger Rabbit?

In the Hutong
Enjoying Local Cooling amidst the Global Warming
1123 hrs

The State Administration for Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) has apparently issued an internal notice to television stations around the country that TV stations will be prohibited from showing foreign cartoons during prime hours of 58pm. I say “apparently” because there is nothing on SARFT’s website about this, and it was apparently a tip from Guizhou TV to Wang Shanshan at China Daily that has allowed us to find out about it at all.

We Make It Up On Volume

The move is the latest effort by SARFT to attempt to buoy China’s own struggling animation industry, an effort that in the past has seen the regulator:

• Require all foreign animated programs to receive SARFT approval prior to broadcast;

• Compel TV stations to use local animation for at least 40% of their animated fare; and

• Build 15 animation incubators around the country.

The net result has been a lot more animation, but by no means better animation. Even China Daily hints at the real problem:

“After all it is creativity, rather than money, that has been lacking in animation in China,” said Xu Jiang, president of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, capital of East China’s Zhejiang Province, where dozens of animation production studios have been set up in recent years.

Produced in large quantities, domestic cartoons are sometimes sold at less than 1 per cent of their cost, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

Many local television stations are only willing to pay around 10 yuan (US$1.25) per minute for domestic animation, while buying foreign animations, like Japan’s “Slam Dunk,” for as much as 5,000 yuan (US$625) per minute, said the Xinhua report.

Domestic animations have to first of all become interesting if they are to be popular, according to Yang Yunxia, a Beijing fashion analyst with a four-year-old daughter. “Children are not going to fall in love with something simply because they have no other options,” she said.

Right. Let’s cut to the chase: most Chinese animated content sucks to the point that even kids won’t watch it.

This Is Why They Built Hollywood So Far From Washington

All of that government-driven effort, and all it has done is manage to crank out larger and larger quantities of dreck. It reminds me of looking out the back window in a friend’s apartment in Guangzhou in the early 1990s and seeing a field filled with Peugeot cars nobody wanted to buy. Or of driving past empty lots in Liaoning filled with steel beams of such abysmal quality that the mills couldn’t give them away.

Fast forward, and we’re now at a point where that same factory in Guangzhou is turning out Honda Accords that are rated higher in quality than the Accords coming out of Honda’s plant in Japan (I know – I own one) and China’s steel industry is turning out steel of sufficient quality to be used in automobile panels.

This didn’t happen because of government sponsored programs any more than China’s animation industry will be saved by neo-protectionism and subsidies.

IF the policy makers responsible for the health of the domestic animation industry in China are REALLY concerned about the domestic animation industry (as opposed to, say, being focused solely on securing their sinecures), they’ll recognize that finding ways to drive foreign investment and expertise into the industry are all that can save it at this point.

Who Needs Broadcast?

Something the nabobs have apparently forgotten is that broadcast television is by no means the only way kids can get their hands on foreign (read “decent”) animated content. In fact, for China’s urban kids, it’s probably the least favored of all possible ways of doing so.

Nearly any kid in a major city can get his or her hands on pirated DVDs of almost any animated film and a lot of television content. A growing number of them can get their fix online.

And more and more kids with computers are wandering away from the TV to the more engaging world of either games or other interactive content. Granted, this is a tiny percentage of the audience, but this is also the golden demographic that advertisers want to reach – China’s yuppie puppies.

SARFT may well try to squeeze IPTV and mobile TV, but it will be more difficult for them to do so as these outlets look to be primarily on-demand driven channels. It would take an outright ban on foreign content for keep these new channels from becoming a new way to watch foreign animation, and I’m not sure that SARFT is ready to fight the combined power of the broadcasters, the telcos, and the MII on this issue.

That’s All, Folks

The result will be the same. Instead of creating new markets for Chinese animation, SARFT will wind up chasing kids away or turning them off completely and in the meantime subsidizing a local industry that is incapable of creating content worthy of watching.

China’s broadcasters, who have typically taken the brown end of the stick with these policies, are the ones who will suffer the most. They will lose young viewers now and fail to establish television as a “must imbibe” medium for a critical demographic, hastening the decline of broadcast TV and, frankly, weakening a medium upon which the government relies to help maintain order.

Just a thought – how long is the Party prepared to countenance an industrial policy that weakens the very industry it is supposed to strengthen and at the same time loosens the Party’s grip on the nation?

The Last Word

Professor Liu Jun at the Beijing Film Academy is quoted by the China Daily as having told an industry gathering last year that “the development of the domestic animation industry is important for preserving ancient Chinese civilization because children and teenagers are supposed to learn traditional values from their favourite TV programs.”

I really hope Professor Liu has an exaggerated opinion of the importance of animation to your average Chinese kid. I can only hope he’s incredibly out of touch with reality.

Because if he’s not, and Chinese society has declined to a point where the nation is relying on cartoons to deliver traditional values, then the fault lies not with Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Pikachu or the Justice League, but with the parents, educators, and leaders who have failed in their duty to pass traditional values onto their children.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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