China's 'Super Girl' Goes Down, Raising Sparks: Adam Minter

Lately, China’s media regulators have done a good job alienating China's microblogging youth. Now, authorities have suspended a popular reality show for a year for repeatedly overrunning its time slot.

This isn't the first time Hunan Satellite TV, China’s second most popular television network, has been in trouble because of Super Girl, an unabashedly low-brow, American Idol-like singing contest. Just a year after the show debuted in 2005, The Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) suspended it for three years.

To the sizable majority of Chinese netizens who prefer entertainment gossip to politics, this latest suspension of Super Girl struck a nerve. Zhou Lin, an accountant, tweeted on the Sina Weibo microblog: “Although I don't like to watch this year’s Super Girl, I think people have the right to be vulgar."

Super Girl was a revelation to Chinese television viewers who were accustomed to the staid, zero-fun programming of state-run CCTV, China’s largest television network. Whereas CCTV tends to highlight the talents of conservatory- and military-trained vocalists, Super Girl's most successful contestants were often gender-benders who could barely sing. China's young viewers embraced the show partly because they saw themselves in the contestants.

Even more compelling was the participatory nature of the program. Like Idol, Super Girl allowed viewers to vote for their favorites. And vote they did. The finals of the inaugural season attracted more than eight million text-message votes.

If Hunan TV had asked SARFT for permission to air Super Girl, it’s hard to imagine that the regulators would have granted it. But with Hunan TV's headquarters located 900 miles from Beijing in Changsha, the capitol of Hunan Province, they apparently didn't feel the need to ask.

China has recently seen wider crackdowns on so-called mindless entertainment. In May, the Director of SARFT, Cai Fuchao, announced that he was no longer interested in television programs that only entertain; he wanted to develop a method “to gauge the merits of TV programs scientifically.”

And earlier this year Bo Xilai, the Communist Party secretary of Chongqing, a massive municipality in southwest China, initiated a “red culture” campaign. Bo banned sitcoms and other entertainment programs from his region's Chongqing Satellite Television. In their place, the station now broadcasts programs such as “Review of Classic Movies” and “Daily Red Songs.” Bo's actions have gained him the support of Beijing's political elite, but they have cost Chongqing Satellite Television viewers and advertising revenue.

To some independently-minded netizens, the future of China's entertainment programming is dim.  ShepherdZ echoed hundreds of other Sina Weibo users when he tweeted:

Those who applaud the end of Super Girl are accustomed in their hearts to obeying the control and restriction of the government. Now they will find that programs worthy of watching are fewer and fewer on TV.

SARFT has been silent on the matter since stating that Super Girlwas suspended because it repeatedly ran over its given time limit. But Xinhua, the state-owned news service, reported that Hunan TV would replace Super Girl next year with programs that “promote moral ethics, public safety and provide practical information for housework.”

In other words, SARFT's suspension of Super Girl is an effort to make Hunan TV more like CCTV.

Some support the move. Speaking of Hunan TV, Wu Yongzhi, a brand manager in Inner Mongolia, tweeted on Sina Weibo: “It serves them right.” He continued:

Something ought to have been done before now to stop this rubbish show ... This black sheep works only for audience ratings and advertisements, and never cares about the future of our teenagers.

An editorial at, a news portal based in rural Hubei Province, took it further:

It is not enough to just stop the vulgar talent shows … Persons responsible for those vulgar talent shows should be given a strict accounting as a warning to others.

However, some netizens and newspaper editors suspected SARFT's motivations for the suspension. The Economic Observer, a highly-respected, independent financial newspaper, candidly blamed the show's suspension on its democratic approach to selecting a winner -- and the voting habit it could encourage in young viewers:

Thus, somebody worries: what if the Chinese elections were voted on like Super Girl, what if Chinese officials could compete for ballots like Super Girl, what if Chinese people could determine the destiny of officials and society through the keypad like Super Girl...

This touches on the most sensitive issue.

A similarly-minded tweet from another Sina Weibo user, Brother Huai, referenced an even more delicate matter--The Tiananmen Uprising of 1989. He wrote:

This is for political reasons! Do you know what public voting on Super Girl means? … The method of direct voting could be copied and improved as a means of political election! Once an awareness of public election is re-awakened, what happened in 1989 may come back again.

That’s probably a stretch. More likely, the negative reaction to Super Girl's suspension will continue to push China’s entertainment-hungry netizens further onto the internet and away from state-regulated broadcast television. And the internet is a much tougher space to control.

Hunan TV’s webmasters know this. On Sept. 20, just a few days after having to shut down Super Girl, the station’s homepage featured a slideshow that included a Chinese heartthrob mostly in the buff and two female celebrities in what appeared to be a staged kiss. For those tired of watching state-sponsored, officially filtered TV, it was hard to miss.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.