SARFT expands control over online television, integrates cable TV networks

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On 14 February 2012, a meeting on broadcast technology was held in Beijing. During this meeting, SARFT announced that it would establish a technological control platform for converged media services, and that it would move forward with the integration of China’s cable television network. More specifically, SARFT Vice-Director Zhang Haitao stated that “concerning the second batch of three-network integration trial points, radio and television must complete its switching on work, but the most important is that a State concentrated new media broadcast control platform must be established. At the same time as setting up the broadcast control platform, technological supervision and management platforms for IPTV, mobile television and Internet television must also be constructed.”

SARFT has already facilitated the establishment of a joint venture broadcast control platform operated by two large IPTV content control platforms: CNTV and Baishitong. This platform will be directly supervised by SARFT, providing the State with a nationwide control mechanism for IP television services. A similar pattern seems to be in the works for mobile telephone TV, Internet TV and other new media platforms. For 3G mobile telephony, there are a number of television content providers, including Hunan Satellite, Hangzhou Huashu, etc., while the there are 7 enterprises that have gained licenses to operate Internet television services. These are CCTV (through its network television branch CNTV), Shanghai Wenguang, Southern Media, Hunan TV, China International Broadcasting Network and China National Radio. SARFT, however, prefers to deal with a smaller amount of players, which is easier to control. There are reports that SARFT is planning to bring together existing supervision centres and content providers, such as its own Network Audiovisual Supervision Centre and provincial-level supervision centres. These would be combined with a technological basis already developed by SARFT’s own Broadcasting Research Institute, in order to establish a new technological supervision and management platform for new media that would be directly subordinate to SARFT.

Generally speaking, this would strengthen supervision over content distributed in the three-network integration trial cities (of which the second batch was just introduced, more on that in a later post), displaying an overriding concern for security during this trial, although it is not inconceivable that this is also a move by SARFT to strengthen its position in respect of other administrative departments involved.

Furthermore, SARFT is supporting the establishment of a new company, the China Radio and Television Network Company, which should be finished by the end of the year. This entails that SARFT has taken the lead in setting up an interconnection platform for cable television networks across the country, linking up the previously separated provincial cable networks. According to a source within the SARFT Science and Technology Department, this interconnection will support the development of nationwide added-value information services, and is a prerequisite for establishing a national-level network enterprise.

Overall, it seems that SARFT is trying to recentralize control over broadcast control, by integrating provincial broadcast networks and centralizing control over supervision platforms at the central level, rather than the provincial level. This seems to fit within the broader picture of SARFT activism that has emerged over the past few months. It can also be seen as a reaction against the erosion of radio and television market share by Internet-based information and entertainment services, especially in the three-network integration trial cities. IPTV in particular has been a formidable competitor for SARFT’s own digital television. The problem is that this erosion has been caused to a large extent by SARFT’s strictness and intransigence. It can also be considered partly as a symptom of China’s strictly regimented media regime, in which cross-over and convergent modes of communication, such as Internet television, are the battleground for administrative turf wars.

One big question is where this leaves the large, on-line video services such as Youku and Tudou. As they aren’t really “television organs”, will they be subject to this new supervision platform, or will this be mainly be employed as a tool to ensure that SARFT gets the lion’s share of commercial benefits generated by providing integrated and converged services?

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