Corruption within China’s television industry, which sometimes takes the form of paying officials to “buy” good ratings for shows, was recently exposed by a well-known Chinese director.
Guo Jingyu, a prolific television director and producer, made a speech at Hubei University in which he detailed the pressures exerted within the industry. His show “Mother’s Life,” a drama set in China during the early 20th century, details the trials and tribulations of a mother of five children. It currently airs on Beijing Satellite TV.
But before the show was picked up there, Guo brought it to a provincial-level television station, which agreed to air it. Guo signed the contract and waited for notification of the air date. He was soon told by the station’s director that if Guo wanted to ensure his show was aired, he would have to pay up.
The staffer in charge of purchasing then set up a meeting between Guo and an unnamed “big shot,” who told Guo that he would ensure “good ratings” for the drama if Guo paid 900,000 yuan (about $130,800) per episode. Because the show had 80 episodes, that meant Guo would need to pay 72 million yuan (about $10.4 million). Guo didn’t identify whether the “big shot” is a government official, television executive, or other industry insider.
Guo disclosed that his show had been bought for 1.3 million yuan per episode; that meant nearly 70 percent of that money would become an “extortion fee,” as he put it. The “big shot” told him that in the past three years, all the major television hits in China had bought ratings in order to claim vast viewership.
After Guo declined the offer, the person went to Beijing Satellite TV and pressured the broadcaster not to air Guo’s show. “Because I had broken their rules,” Guo wrote, he was threatened.
Beijing Satellite TV decided to go ahead with Guo’s show, which is currently the broadcaster’s No. 1 drama, according to Guo.
The director said he decided to publicize the incident so that the corrupt practices can be stopped. “If this industry continues to be such a mess, it will completely have no future,” he wrote.
Guo posted a transcript of the speech to Sina Weibo, a popular social media platform similar to Twitter. In response, others who work in China’s television industry voiced their support. Screenwriter Song Fangjin shared Guo’s post and corroborated everything he said.
Fellow director Lu Chuan posted on Weibo that he’d heard of similar pressure through his circle of director friends: If the money wasn’t paid up, the broadcaster refused to air the show.
Wang Zhangtian, chairman of Enlight Media, a publicly traded entertainment company based in Beijing, wrote that in 2015, because he refused to pay for ratings, the company was forced out of the television market. Many Enlight Media projects were due to air on state television but were abruptly canceled.
After Guo’s post went viral, China’s main television censorship body—the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television—announced Sept. 16 that it would investigate Guo’s case. The following day, a national trade association for television production also announced that it would investigate the case.
But cases of “buying” ratings have been uncovered before. In 2002, the deputy bureau chief of the TV, film, and radio censorship body criticized the industry for the same problem.