China’s censors take aim at popular internet TV operators that offer foreign shows

Seven companies told 'unauthorised' content will be taken down in seven days and they could see licence revoked if breach is found

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 6:47pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 July, 2014, 7:37pm

Internet TV and set-top-box operators are now the next target of China’s media watchdog, which has requested the companies to follow strict orders on censoring their content – including foreign television shows.

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Sarft), warned seven internet-TV providers such as Central Television, Zhejiang TV station, BestTV and Wasu Online that their licences would be revoked if they breach regulations, The Beijing News reported.

Sarft has made a special request to the seven providers to closely examine the foreign movies, micro-movies (very short films) and TV series they offer.

Shows that fail to get authorisation will be removed from the sites within seven days, the newspaper reported.

With just a Wifi connection and set-top-box, viewers can watch shows online for free on internet TV sites, which offer a wider range of content than most cable television channels. It has gained popularity especially among the younger generation.

Some of the most popular foreign shows aired on numerous internet portals in China include the Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, Sherlock and The Big Bang Theory.

An analyst said Sarft was worried that unsanctioned foreign content could compromise the core values of the Communist Party.

Sarft said these seven internet TV providers had two licences – content service and integrated service – and highlighted that the latter was an imprimatur to censor and manage content.

Many local TV stations without the integrated licence that have been providing internet TV programmes through set-top-boxes should be stopped, it said.

A leading news portal’s senior manager, who declined to be named, said the crackdown on the set-top-box industry reflected Sarft’s fear that Internet TV might overtake cable, which would diminish the watchdog’s power.

Sarft gets profitable revenues from the fees it imposes on TV programmes’ administrative examination and approval, as well as granting licences to cable channels.

¡§If customers can download any content on internet TV through set-top boxes, it will go out of Sarft’s control,” the manager said.

In April, Sina.com, China’s largest news portal, saw its Online Audio-Video Programme Licence revoked by the authorities. Insiders said this was because the portal’s video channel allowed amateur filmmakers to upload videos – uncensored – which could touch on sensitive topics such as politics.

Other experts said the digital television age was unstoppable worldwide, no matter how much the central government seeks to police it.

"[Those] who are [born after 1980] are more aware of the outer world and they embrace lifestyles of the Western world,” said Li Yi, a film director. “Many of them are internet-savvy and they can find ways to get free content online.”

More than 600 million Chinese people – almost half the nation’s population – have internet access, according to the latest report of the China Internet Network Information.

"It’s impossible to stop such a large number of audiences,” Li said.

Sarft had come under fire from the public in March over new censorship guidelines on foreign television series that would have shut out popular series such as American political drama House of Cards and the detective thriller Sherlock.