China finally acknowledges its TV shows are too dang long

Society & Culture

Watching a Chinese TV show requires serious commitment. From mega-hit historical drama Empresses in the Palace, also known as The Legend of Zhen Huan 後宮 · 甄嬛傳, to the recent discussion-generating and boundary-pushing show A Little Reunion 小欢喜, China’s TV industry loves unreasonably long dramas that stretch 50-plus episodes, with many that serve no purpose other than to extend their runtimes.

After ignoring complaints from audiences for years, it seems that China’s media regulators have finally decided to do something about its marathon TV shows. Over the weekend, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), China’s top regulatory body for entertainment, reportedly began drafting new regulations. If passed, according to an anonymous insider in the industry, no shows would be allowed to exceed 40 episodes.

Per National Business Daily (in Chinese), it was around 2015 that TV drama lengths began to spiral out of control. After analyzing data from the past 10 years, the newspaper found that the average length of a TV show was 30 episodes around 2012, but has been around 40 episodes for the past three years.

Talking to the newspaper, a senior TV producer said that adding extra episodes is a strategic move to garner buzz in an era when most series are broadcast on a weekly basis. “Longer shows allow more time for viewers to get hooked and talk about them. Shows with too few episodes are not ideal for week-to-week releases,” he said, adding that sometimes shows simply can’t be condensed because they are adapted from internet novels with millions of words.

Recently, the NRTA has already taken some action to make TV shows shorter. According to a recent NRTA announcement, among 26 TV shows it reviewed in July, 15 were required to shorten their length to varying degrees. Last December, August Weiyang, a highly-anticipated drama about a love triangle, was reportedly asked to shave off 20 episodes from its original 80-episode plan.

It’s worth noting that NRTA is also working on some other problems that have plagued the television industry. The producer cited by National Business Daily said the new guidelines would order TV production companies to submit full scripts for shows when they apply for filming permissions. This is NRTA’s way of combating the practice of TV producers rushing to buy an author’s intellectual property before having a concrete idea of how to turn a piece of writing into a show. The practice “is a serious problem,” another insider told the newspaper. “In some extreme cases, companies started filming before even having an outline. A remarkable number of middle-sized and small-sized production companies [have] acquired exclusive rights to create adapted works without the actual capacity to realize their ideas.”