Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever agree with anything the Communist regime of China did.
Generally speaking, I hate the Beijing system – I detest the way they repress their people; underpay and abuse workers; wantonly pollute the environment without any regard for human health consequences; hold “trials” in secrecy; greedily exploit the natural resources of Africa and other poor nations; oppress and torture the Tibetans; aggressively assert their territorial designs all over East Asia; among a multitude of other grave offenses.
However, I couldn’t help but agree -- at least in principle -- with the Chinese government’s decision to drastically reduce the number of “entertainment” programs from their television networks.
Essentially, Chinese regulatory authorities are seeking to eliminate a large number of “talent show” and “reality TV” programs that have infested their air-waves in recent years -- and which (it must be said) attract huge audiences.
Of course, President Hu Jintao explained the decision in grandiose, self-serving, political and even paranoid terms.
In a recent column for a state-controlled publication called Qiushi, he wrote: We must clearly be aware that international enemy forces are stepping up their strategic plots to westernize and split our country. The fields of thought and culture are important sectors they are using for this long-term infiltration. We must clearly recognize the seriousness and difficulty of this struggle; sound the alarm bell . . . and take effective measures to deal with it.
While Hu’s motivations are rather questionable… he’s onto something.
The over-riding issue here is the fact that the worst, most vulgar aspects of American pop culture are spilling across the globe – even in distant, alien lands like China and India.
Part of this “plague” is the proliferation of “realty TV” programs which – in my humble opinion – have absolutely no value, nor redeeming qualities. Rather, they represent an appalling waste of time and serve only to demean and embarrass both the viewer and the ‘performers.’
Before you think I am some kind of “snob,” let me explain that I love television. American television has produced truly great works of art – shows like “All in the Family,” “Twilight Zone,” “The Honeymooners,” “The Sopranos,” “The Simpsons,” “Barney Miller,” “Hill Street Blues,” “St. Elsewhere.” and many others are brilliantly acted and written – and sometimes even inspiring and moving.
I even like “silly” mass-audience programs like “Get Smart,” “Munsters,” “Greece Acres,” “Gomer Pyle,” “Beavis & Butthead,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Flintstones,” “Star Trek,” etc., because they are highly entertaining. Even if some of this latter batch of shows lack “relevance” or “social values,” it is clear that they were produced by highly creative people who knew how to engage and entertain millions of viewers.
However, I draw the line at “reality” shows, most talk shows and “talent” competition programs. Generally speaking, these programs are tacky, vulgar and depressing. Of course, I have watched some of these shows – how else could I have arrived at an appraisal of them?
Let’s focus specifically on “reality shows” – which fester all across the TV landscape.
They have nothing remotely to do with “reality” and are designed to depict “freaks” that we are supposed to loathe or laugh at or feel sorry for. Typically, these productions promote/celebrate/endorse greed, materialism, selfishness, superficiality and shallowness.
What “creativity” lies behind these programs? How many times can we “snicker” at a catfight between two “real housewives” or a washed-up “celebrity drug addict”?
Granted, I understand why “reality” shows have emerged -- money.
Network television is under siege and the situation has reached crisis levels. First, they were challenged by cable TV (which is free to show such forbidden things as nudity and explicit violence, etc.); and now by the internet (which may actually deal a death blow to network TV within a few years).
“Reality shows” are hugely profitable because they are extremely cheap to make -- thus, they don’t necessarily need to have big ratings to generate substantial revenues. When one isn’t burdened by having to pay expensive actors, writers and directors, nor pay to build sets, the money will soon be rolling in.
Meanwhile, the minds and souls of millions of bored viewers further corrode and decay.
Some might counter that network TV is simply providing to the public what it wants. I would strenuously disagree with this assertion -- the people that control television/mass media networks are a tiny (and very rich) elite who have little in common with the public they pretend to “serve.” They’re only interested in maximizing profits -- and since they control production and distribution, the public has little real “choice” about what they want to watch.
In a sense, the TV networks create “demand” by providing their own “supply.”
Plus, they are counting on enough people being too dumb or too lazy to watch a good movie or read a good book. (Sadly, there are enough people like this to make the TV networks highly successful).
What does all this have to do with China?
China has a glorious, spectacular and ancient culture that stretches back thousands of years. Chinese authorities are rightfully concerned that this precious and fragile legacy is under assault from vulgar, corrosive (i.e. “foreign”) forces.
I will concede that Hu Jintao and the Communist Party elite have nefarious, ulterior motives in seeking to stamp out certain TV programs – they want to maintain their power and are terrified of an ‘Arab Spring” type revolt spreading to their country.
This is why I feel uncomfortable agreeing with Hu.
But he has some legitimate concerns and I share them.
Globalization (as exemplified by TV and the internet) presents a grave threat to traditional cultures around the world and endangers the very future of various cultural practices.
The sad thing is that Hu Jintao (and I) are fighting a losing battle.
The forces of globalization and mass media are simply too powerful and inexorable – in the coming years, American-style TV programs and other useless vulgarities will sweep over the entire planet and destroy every remnant of traditional culture. And there is nothing anyone can really do to stop it.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.