Did China Kill Super Girl Over Voting? Does It Matter?


A popular Idol-type TV show in China was shut down by government authorities a few weeks ago. But did Super Girl (a.k.a. Happy Girl) get the axe because it overran its time slot, because it was too risqué or because authorities weren't comfortable with letting audiences engage in democracy? 

The Financial Times (via CNN) leans toward the third option:

Super Girl, China's version of Pop Idol, is to be dropped from television schedules in spite of attracting 400m viewers at its peak, following government pressure on a programme that some officials saw as subversive because the audience voting too closely represented Western-style democracy.

Li Hao, deputy editor and spokesman of Hunan Satellite TV, which broadcast the show, was quoted as saying the changes were under disciplinary measures by the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television, and the broadcaster would soon launch new programming on morals, security and housework instead.

Super Girl has attracted regulatory scrutiny before. The show was first launched in 2004 and hit its 400m viewership peak in the final episode of the 2005 season, but was suspended once before and repeatedly criticised. Aside from unease about creating stars with the help of audience votes, officials criticised it as profane and "unhealthy".

State media said SARFT was punishing the broadcaster because the show had frequently overrun its allotted time slot. However, the programming changes follow months of regulatory pressure on Hunan TV and was widely seen as a sobering reminder of the country's censorship regime.

In May, Ouyang Changlin, director and Communist party secretary of Hunan Broadcasting System, the satellite TV station's parent, told the Financial Times that HBS was revamping programming in response to new censorship demands.

Mr Ouyang, the chief architect of the network's entertainment-focused strategy, said back then HBS had to make its programmes more acceptable to the authorities. SARFT officials had demanded that broadcasters should be led by "quality, responsibility and values".

Business Insider says officials have long been skeptical of talent shows' popular-vote element: 

Officials didn't explain exactly what was so racy about the program, but everyone knows anyway. Happy Girl's predecessor, Super Girl, got canceled because it allowed viewers all over the country to vote for the winner. Happy Girl tried to avoid the same fate by just allowing members of the studio audience to vote, and by pretending it was just a regional show. But that wasn't enough to make officials happy.

China's been on a censorship kick lately, which seems to be independent of concerns about vote-by-text shows: 

Last weekend, Charles Chao, chief executive of internet groups and China's largest micro-blogging service Sina, said he was listening to the worries about false "rumours" spreading across the internet with lightning speed.

"Because sometimes rumours can spread too quickly, Sina is now establishing more mechanisms to quash rumours through a variety of channels," Mr Chao told an industry forum in Beijing.

"There is a lot of false news on Weibo, and there are also many rumours, and this is creating a big challenge for government management and is also a huge challenge for vendors on our platform," Mr Chao said, adding that rumours were "magnified" on Weibo because of its large audience. 

And dig these old comments from Liu Zhongde of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference: 

Take a look at the youth who are following the 'Super Girls' now. See what state of mind they are in, what direction they are headed. Take a look at how the audiences are watching this program, and you'll find that amid unthinking laughter people have been corrupted. The cultural departments have a responsibility to prevent this corruption; they must strengthen their administration of this sort of program.

I can't speak about the show's time slot troubles (though as the networks recognized after the infamous "Heidi Bowl" incident of 1968, only a fool cuts away from a ratings winner). But as Charles Paul Freund noted a long time ago in Reason, the prudish objection and the anti-democratic objection go hand-in-hand. Talent contest shows subvert autocracies through both democracy and immorality. That's why they have been the subjects of conspiracy theories in Jordan and death threats in Palestine.