China will allow satellite television stations to buy the right to broadcast only one foreign programme each year from 2014 as part of new restrictions to push "morality-building" and educational shows, state media reported on Monday.
The official Shanghai Securities Journal, citing an order by the General Administration for Press and Publication to domestic television stations, also said foreign programmes could not be broadcast in prime-time viewing hours from 7:30pm to 10pm during the year in which the broadcasting rights were purchased.
The new rules are an intensification of an earlier policy announced in February, which capped the broadcast of foreign television series to 50 episodes, and will result in fewer foreign series being broadcast in China.
The campaign also could accelerate a wider trend: the migration of domestic viewers away from broadcast television toward pre-recorded shows downloaded from the Internet to computers and mobile devices.
The Chinese government is increasingly concerned about what it sees as rising vulgarity in domestic television programming. At the same time, it has been moving to limit domestic channels' reliance on imported content.
The English-language Shanghai Daily said the new restrictions were intended to crack down on the growing practice of buying the copyright of proven foreign shows like "Britain's Got Talent," then localising them without further modification, spawning shows like "China's Got Talent."
Such programming can be quickly monetised at minimal risk and is generally easy to sell to advertisers.
The new rules also stipulate that stations must increase the amount of public-interest programming such as documentaries, education and "morality-building" programmes to not less than 30% of the total, and restrict the number of new musical talent shows to one every three months.
The Shanghai Daily quoted several programming directors at provincial television stations, which increasingly rely on advertising revenues instead of state subsidies, saying the new regulations would be tough on their operations.
Despite the government's controls, popular foreign television shows are widely available as illegal downloads or on pirated DVDs.
In response to consumers' shift toward watching downloaded content on mobile devices, many domestic television broadcasters have moved to make shows available online or have signed distribution partnerships with domestic video websites like Youku Tudou Inc's Youku.com.
China committed to opening its domestic media sector to foreign competition during negotiations to join the World Trade Organization. Even so, it has maintained heavy restrictions on imported movies and television shows in order to provide room for state-controlled domestic producers.