IN ITS latest rulings on video websites, China's top media regulator has made it clear that overseas television programs will be restricted in both content and number.
The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television announced on Sept 5 that overseas movies and TV series that don't obtain a public screening and distribution license cannot be streamed on video websites.
Such sites are required to register details of their ongoing programs with the administration before Mar 31; starting on April 1 all unregistered shows should be removed.
The policy came after a series of progressive restriction policies regarding Internet-based programs.
In March, the administration required that online content be examined by at least three government-trained specialists. Programs should be removed immediately if they include inappropriate content, such as promoting superstition or glamorizing violence, sex or gambling.
In late April, it required four popular American TV series, including The Good Wife and The Big Bang Theory, to be removed from video websites without giving specific reasons.
In July, the administration called meetings with seven licensed Internet-television content providers, which provide online content to set-top boxes, to warn of a possible license withdrawal because all have acted against rules in varying degrees. As a result, many US programs are now missing from LeTV box, a namesake Internet TV set of video portal LeTV.com.
The new policy is simply a restatement of previous regulations, eMovie Inc's CEO Bao Ran told Sina Entertainment, but it means that video websites will be restricted in the same way as TV stations are, regarding licensing overseas programs.
Previously, video websites needed to simply register before broadcasting overseas content, rather than apply for a formal distribution license. The shows reportedly have been examined mainly by the websites' own personnel, who are trained by the administration.
The new procedures are more complicated and stricter. According to news portal Sina Technology, before the end of each year video websites will have to report their year-round purchase plan for the next year to provincial media authorities, who will then forward the proposals to the administration.
Each February, shortlisted programs will be posted on an online platform. After video websites actually license a programme, they still have to register the programme information on the platform for a recheck. Each programme will then be issued a serial number, which must be screened before a show starts.
Experts worry that these time-consuming processes mean, at a minimum, that foreign programs will no longer be almost simulcast in China and their original countries. Previously a show could reach Chinese audiences as soon as several hours after their debut on original channels, equipped with Chinese subtitles.
The new policy also requires the number of overseas programs be no more than 30 per cent of a website's total content. This, however, is not expected to have much impact, IT portal Imtw.com's CEO Zhang Yanxiang tells reporters, as overseas content currently doesn't account for such a significant share of the programming.
Even so, with more stimulating subjects, better production and faster narrative rhythm, foreign shows－especially TV series from the United States－have helped China's major video websites attract an audience that includes well-educated and highly paid young elites.
Many sites, therefore, still treat licensing overseas content as a key strategy. Leading video site Sohu, for example, which had exclusively licensed the popular House of Cards and The Big Bang Theory, reportedly planned earlier this year to spend more money securing the rights to screen 100 American TV series from this coming fall.
But the strict standards of official examination means the once flourishing diversity of American TV series on Chinese video websites, including political dramas, crime shows and supernatural stories, will face a setback. This is expected to cause the loss of a certain audience segment, says IT portal dwrh.net's editor-in-chief Wu Chunyong, which will affect the websites' business patterns.
"Some advertisements could be gone. Their attempts to foster new audiences become in vain," he says.
Bao Ran of eMovie told Sina Entertainment that video sites will have to compete harder for the good shows－and make sure they don't spend money on shows that can't pass official examination.
While the policy has upset many viewers and websites, it has created an opportunity for domestic productions. Wu says the policy itself is a clear sign of government support for the local TV industry.
It's not just that more domestic shows will find a broadcasting outlet. Video websites have a lot of data that clarify audiences' preferences. Wu says the sites can use this advantage in producing their own shows, by working with domestic or even foreign companies to make up for the possible losses caused by the limits on overseas content.
"The policy could drive all video websites back to the same starting line. Whosoever transforms first will find the way out earlier," he says.