The article was updated at 6:50 p.m.
Even as Chinese firms hotly pursue U.S. acquisitions from Unocal to Maytag, China’s government continues to harden its stance on U.S. media companies doing business on its soil.
The world’s most populous nation, which is every media mogul’s fantasy market, has banned local TV and radio broadcasters from creating new channels in partnership with foreigners.
Western media execs have regarded with increasing dismay China’s retreat in recent months from what appeared to be a new era of openness last year under Xu Guangchun, the former head of the State Administration of Radio, Film & Television (Sarft).
He was replaced in December by Wang Taiua, who has battened down the hatches.
In early June, Sarft said it was considering squeezing foreign cartoons out of coveted primetime slots.
Agency is limiting Chinese firms to just one joint-venture partnership with foreign media companies. It has cracked down on the use of English words on TV and banned shows with crime or violence in primetime.
The latest regs appear to restrict co-production and programming ventures as well as channel partnerships.
Sony, Viacom and Warner Bros. have inked deals in China within the past year, while News Corp. has been operating there for years. What impact the new regs will have on these existing deals is unclear, but the changes reinforce the importance of first-mover advantage in China.
According to Sarft’s Web site, “Radio and television stations may not rent channels to foreign organizations and may not cooperate in funding and operating radio and television channels with foreign organizations.”
Chinese news reports said the new rules have forced one Chinese TV company, Qinghai TV, to cancel plans to work with News Corp.
While media remains the last bastion of state control in China’s otherwise fast-moving, free-enterprise economy, policy changes are rarely clear-cut or straightforward to interpret from the outside.
Most shifts take the form of a deregulation experiment with limited geographical and technical effect, followed by a retrenchment born of fear that the loosening may have been over-generous to foreign media operators.
Insiders have suggested for several months that Chinese media policy has swung into a phase of retreat, a cycle that will eventually be reversed.
The current tightening of the regulatory belt appears to take the form of a freeze on new permits and licenses, not the dismantling of previously agreed deals.
There is already a queue of license applications.
Deals involving Viacom, Time Warner’s HBO and ESPN Sports may have to wait.
Sony Pictures Television Intl.’s deal with a China Film Group subsidiary to create Huaso Film/Television Digital Prod. may be the most recent approval — and that dates back to November.
Viacom’s children’s programming joint venture with Shanghai Media Group was apparently approved by Sarft, but by April had not been set up.
Sarft has also probed News Corp.’s wholly owned advertising sales operation in Shanghai. This provides a mix of programming content and advertising for regional channels.
Chinese authorities are said to fear that this operation may take effective control of some smaller broadcasters.
However, other projects initiated by western media owners are perceived by central or regional government as having a more positive impact and may still move ahead.
New Mouse house
For the last week, local media has suggested that plans for a Disneyland theme park on the mainland are progressing.
The park is headed for a site in Shanghai’s mushrooming Pudong district with an opening date tentatively set at 2010.
Disneyland spokesmen in Hong Kong say that they are concentrating solely on preparations for the September opening of the new park in that city.
But other Disney sources suggest that if indeed there has been movement in the Shanghai application, which the Chinese authorities generally favor, it is likely to be because Disney has watered down its package of associated demands for TV channel and corporate access.
Not everything in the Chinese TV sector is about stone-walling the foreigners.
On Tuesday it was announced that PROMAX&BDA, the organization that puts together events focused on commercials and promos, will host its first conference in China.
As part of the Sarft-backed Sichuan Television Festival, it will host an awards ceremony on Nov. 26, followed by a one-day conference on Nov. 27.
“Our co-operation with PROMAX&BDA will enhance the communication between international professionals and Chinese TV stations and companies,” said Sichuan fest topper, Zhong Xuzhao, “and provide them with more opportunities for cooperation and business.”