China’s Media Regulator Cuts ‘Entertaining’ TV Content During Coronavirus Crisis

China’s media regulator has responded to the deadly coronavirus epidemic sweeping the country by cutting “entertaining” TV shows and boosting news programs, it said Tuesday, at a time when millions are stuck at home under quarantine.

The announcement comes just days after it declared it was also doing the opposite: actively working to bring in more TV shows to channels in Wuhan and Hubei province, the epicenter of the disease. The self-contradiction is an illustration of the Chinese regime’s desire to disseminate ideologically “correct” programming of the appropriate emotional timbre to residents at a chaotic time of crisis.

It also provides a window into what kinds of content Beijing deems suitable for its citizens to consume as it tries to keep a lid on panic and mounting criticism of the government’s management of the outbreak.

The announcements have been met, however, with outrage online. The regulator “has gone nuts again,” wrote one critic on Weibo, China’s Twitter-equivalent. “Putting up more news is fine, but by cancelling entertainment programs, do they want everyone to just sit at home every day falling into depression and watching the epidemic encroach?”

The official death toll from the new coronavirus hit 106 on Tuesday, while the number of confirmed cases almost doubled in a day to more than 4,500. More than 56 million people in almost 20 Chinese cities are now living under travel restrictions imposed in hopes of stopping the spread of the disease. 

Last Friday, China’s National Radio and Television Administration said it was coordinating with copyright owners including streaming giant iQiyi and Zhejiang Huace for them to donate the broadcasting rights of ten “outstanding dramas” to the main state-backed satellite TV channels in Hubei and Wuhan, where more than 35 million have been quarantined inside their own cities.

The content is meant to “stabilize people’s emotions, boost their confidence and morale” and help them “overcome their difficult times,” it wrote in a statement. The shows include, among others, two medical dramas, a show about a community recovering from an earthquake, two shows about youth stepping up to serve their country, either by joining the air force or planting trees, an anti-drug trafficking police procedural, and two historic dramas —  a re-enactment of Mao-era history, and a celebration of the 40th anniversary of China’s economic reforms.

On Monday, the administration posted a statement about how it was mobilizing the country’s short-video and streaming platforms to disseminate information about the epidemic. Short-video apps like Douyin (China’s TikTok), Weibo and Kuaishou have been galvanized to “vigorously publicize the party central committee’s decisions and deployments,” while streamers like Youku, Tencent Video, and Bilibili have been ordered to set up a designated channel or section devoted to the epidemic and put out stories full of “positive energy” about “the touching stories of frontline medical workers.”

On Tuesday, the body described different new programs scheduled around the country focused on news about the epidemic and prevention information. The government has come under fire for lacking transparency in its handling of the disease, particularly in the early days of the epidemic, when the public was not sufficiently informed. 

The regulator also said that the Hunan and Zhejiang provincial TV stations would be cancelling variety shows set to air during the lunar new year holiday period — a move that it declared an indication of mainstream media outlets shouldering their “responsibilities and duties.”

Viewers in those regions will no longer be able to tune into fare like the popular “Happy Camp,” one of the country’s most loved variety shows, featuring guests and celebrities who sing, dance and answer interview questions, or “Wandering,” a food travel show about backpackers looking for good eats across different Chinese cities.

China has in recent years been clamping down on content deemed “overly entertaining” and thus unseemly, and is more prone to do so in times of disaster.

But as boredom sets in for those under quarantine, the move has left many in the country echoing a Weibo commenter, who implored: “What am I supposed to do at home then??”

Videos have gone viral on Douyin of how people have spent their time shut in, from dancing out their cabin fever to building impressive card towers to setting up carnival games like ring toss in their living room.

Meanwhile, people tuned in en masse to a different kind of very real reality program: live-streams from the construction site of two temporary hospitals rapidly being built in Wuhan to treat the virus. Some 18 million viewers watched the CCTV live-stream of the construction on Tuesday — almost as many as the 27 million who took in the live feed for China’s extravagant National Day military parade to mark its most important political occasion last year, according to the South China Morning Post.

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