China Bans TV Ads -- Good Idea?

by Jason Wire Nov 29, 2011

Mao always hated commercials. Photo by Furibond..

In an effort “to unify thinking” and “boost culture,” China has ordered a ban on advertisements during broadcasts of TV dramas.

The announcement from China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television reads:

“Radio and television are important mouthpieces of the party and the people and are important battlefields in publicity and ideology. They bear important responsibilities in the public cultural service system, they must fully play up their advantages and earnestly perform their duties.”

To most, this news will come as business as usual from China, a country well-known for its authoritarian approach to media (not to mention media involving time travel). But let’s run with it: would running TV shows ad-free actually “boost culture” and “unify thinking”? Aside from the obvious notion that a purely unified thought process would be outlandishly boring, scary, and weird, what happens to the audience when you don’t break up a narrative?

Most of us are exposed to hundreds and hundreds of advertisements each day. It’s how media works. And while I’m delighted that I can watch Modern Family and It’s Always Sunny for free online, it comes at a cost to the continuity of my experience, throwing me out of my giggle-fit like a toe-tapping student breaks my focus during a physics exam. Or during the most tense moments of a TV drama–does that cliffhanger sustain the anticipatory buildup, or does it release it at a time when a viewer’s attention couldn’t be further away from a promotion for a car?

I’m inclined to agree with the Chinese on the fact that eliminating ads will unify thought, if only for a brief instant. When we go to the movies, are we going just for the bigger screen, larger sound, and immediate viewing of a newly-released film? There must be something more to it than pure size and immediate gratification; the movies are a common denominator, a level playing field where everyone, for a couple hours, is involved in the same pursuit of happiness through distraction and imagination. That seems to be the goal here–to sustain the presence, or even the appearance of unification, even if it’s only for an hour.

This isn’t to suggest that China’s approach to the communal viewing experience is without flaw–far from it. The mere fact that it’s exercising this much control over the media is unsettling, even if not uncharacteristic. But to say that China has evil motives in mind here would be narrow minded. Storytelling is predicated on the idea of tying an audience together and involve them in the same experience, and to remove the barriers to that unification–even if only to strengthen an already overpowerful state–seems like it can’t be without a few harmonious consequences. Even if they are during an episode of Big Bang Theory.

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