Public or Commercial? Not an Either-or Question

Public or commercial? That is the question. After reading the afterword of the book The Media Monopoly by Ben H. Bagdikian, I started to examine the parallel situation in my own country. Quite different from here, there is no literal “public television” service in China from the view of their financing source. All the national channels are basically regulated by State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT), which means all broadcasting programs are supposed to serve greater good of the public as US “public television” do, but they’ve actually adopted a model in which the financing source lies in commercials. The border of “public” and “commercial” is always blurred, while the consequence is a dilemma of being public or commercial.

Being the “invisible hand” behind the broadcasting system, the China central government has the say on what content should be put on the Television, not only for government propaganda, but also for public educational and cultural purposes. Commercial and entertainment compose only small part of television. However, as China’s Market Economy booming, the transformation from government sponsored to self-support in mass communication also took place, either central or provincial or local television channels has to look for corporate advertising as their income. Losing government fund, their alternative to survive is providing programs that serve eyeball economy, which means to partly sacrifice principles of public television.

It is not appropriate to say, as the article points out, that the ultimate need of those channels is to “satisfy the major source of their income”, or the commercial television is going wild as it does in US by overloading political cynics, violence and sex. But the less restraint environment and the pursuit of profit inevitably result in their commercialization.

By “going commercial”, it is not possible for television channels in China to play excessive violence and extreme yellow journalism, or for big corporations to speak for respective political groups, but possible for them to make eyeball-catching and over-entertaining programs sponsored by big commercial brands.

The flood of various Pop Idol TV shows best typifies the phenomenon. Super Girl Voice Contest, generally described as the Chinese version of Pop Idol, held by Hunan Television in 2005, got popular all over the country with the rating dramatically going up from 0.5% to 4.6% and the market share increasing to 49%. The show then changed its name as Mengniu Yoghurt Super Girl Voice Contest after the company that sponsored the series. According to official statistics, the direct commercial profit from the show was over 766 million RMB. Ever since then, a bunch of provincial television channels in China launched their own Pop Idol or Talent Show programs. The commercial operations became even more violent in the manner of advertising, title sponsorship, message voting, etc. It is said that different commercial groups manipulated the mobile message voting process, but people just kept texting for their idols regardless of the “black case work” and high expenditure. Punditry questioned: is this just a television show or a plan to make money? Some educators even blamed these shows as “poison to youth” because they distorted teenagers’ aesthetic standard and outlook on life success.

To prevent television going commercially out of control, the article mentions government regulation. I agree that government’s macro-control would be effective. In the case above, SARFT eventually stepped in and issued rules governing such shows. The new regulations stated that the shows must not make a hubbub and should avoid vulgar or gross styles so as to protect the morals of the youth in China. These programs made adjustment in new season and the feedback from the public was surprisingly good.

In fact, SARFT has never been judged positively by the public because of its dictatorial manner in content censoring. But people in China also have faith in a moderate control on our television programs to maintain a healthy society. Being neither purely public nor commercial, it is even important for China television to achieve a good balance. Although central government power has been diluted, but its supervision still exists, and self-censor mechanism is also held by local television channels. I am not suggesting the power should use their strong hand to set agenda or filter content as it does always happen in today’s China, but to intervene when commercial operators are crossing the line by posing negative influence on the audience.

For the situation in US, I understand the First Amendment will not allow government’s direct intervention in broadcasting system, but I believe proper control on commercial television is necessary for the sake of public good. In this sense, “The Fallacy of the Two-Model Choice” is no longer tenable. We can find a positive “grey area” between complete “government propaganda” and “totally commercial”.

Additionally, it’s also not fair to only blame the television or corporate entities, the audience also need to form themselves a healthier taste in consuming television. As I know, some local channels in China ever tried “non-commercial period” which means only broadcasting art and science programs without any commercials. However, these programs were finally kicked out by low rating. In the article, the author argues there is a difference between what people say they want and what most actually do. This is very true reflected by my observation. We blame commercialized programs but we are not resistant to them. This mentality motivates commercial television and advertisers become more profit-driven.

To me, it is not an “either-or” choice for being commercial or public, audience call for quality programs but media want to sustain and make money. The key is how both needs can coexist in space where interaction, balance and counterbalance can be operated.

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