Every Sunday afternoon at 4pm, China’s reality TV fans can tune in to watch bullets fly, young girls break down into tears, and dogs jump through rings of fire.
And while dozens of popular shows are pulled off the air for being “vulgar” and “overly entertaining,” this show has the Communist Party’s seal of approval.
“Who Is the Ultimate Hero?” pits members of China’s People’s Liberation Army against one another in a series of competitions ranging from marksmanship to rappelling.
The show aims to “demonstrate the tenacious will and intense training of our army’s crack troops and to impart a rich knowledge of the modern military,” according to its website.
It is only one of several shows in which the government has adapted popular TV formats to send a political message.
The awkwardly-named “Legal Editorial Department” features weekly episodes of adultery, fraud, and murder, with enough shouting matches and tearful confessions to rival any soap opera.
But at the end of each week’s program, a legal expert appears on screen to review the various crimes committed in the episode. Pointing viewers to the relevant sections in China’s legal code, he reminds them of the penalties such behaviour incurs.
Both “Who Is the Ultimate Hero?” and “Legal Editorial Department” are shown on Sunday nights on CCTV-7, the state-run broadcaster’s channel for military and agricultural programs.
China is in the midst of a campaign to overhaul the content of its TV programming. Late last year, the State Administration for Radio Film and Television (SARFT) ordered regional broadcasters to limit the amount of entertainment programs shown during primetime, replacing them with news and educational shows.
SARFT called upon broadcasters to “oppose money worship, hedonism, and extreme individualism” in policing shows’ content, and to promote “refined and inspiring” programs instead.
While talent shows have become a particular target of China’s censors, it is unlikely that CCTV-7’s “The Great Glorious Path” will get the axe anytime soon.
This glitzy variety show aims to “assist migrant workers along the path of entrepreneurship and prosperity.”
Migrants from China’s countryside – often young and attractive – sing, juggle, and carve flowers out of vegetables, accompanied by strobe lights and techno music.
But despite the government’s best efforts, such morality-building programs may still have a hard time attracting viewers.
On “Who Is the Ultimate Hero?” many competitions centre around mundane tasks rather than death-defying stunts, with long interludes filled by technical explanations and patriotic speeches.
One recent episode featured paratroopers racing to fill canisters of oxygen and replace the light bulbs in an airfield searchlight.
Rather than raise viewers’ patriotic spirits and improve their moral character, such shows are more likely to leave them reaching for the remote. As all of China’s TV channels are now required to fill primetime hours with shows like “Ultimate Hero” and “Glorious Path,” more and more viewers are apt to simply tune out altogether.
China’s young generation, the main target of Beijing’s recent moral campaigns, already spends most of its time online, where despite the infamous “great firewall of China,” they have access to countless American and other TV shows and movies promoting very un-socialist values.
With tighter controls over TV content, SARFT and its censors will only end up weakening their own influence on what China watches and what its people think.
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