BEIJING – D'oh! China has banished Homer Simpson, Pokemon and Mickey Mouse from prime time. Beginning Sept. 1, regulators have barred foreign cartoons from TV from 5 to 8 p.m. in an effort to protect China's struggling animation studios, news reports said Sunday. The move allows the Monkey King and his Chinese pals to get the top TV viewing hours to themselves.
Foreign cartoons, especially from Japan, are hugely popular with China's 250 million children and the country's own animation studios have struggled to compete. Communist leaders are said to be frustrated that so many cartoons are foreign-made, especially after efforts to build up Chinese animation studios.
The ban hasn't been formally announced, but newspapers already were criticizing it Sunday as the wrong way to improve programming.
"This is a worrying, shortsighted policy and will not solve the fundamental problems in China's cartoon industry," the Southern Metropolis News said. "The viewing masses, whether adults or children, will have no choice but to passively support Chinese products."
Chinese animators produce hundreds of hours of programs a year but aren't known for flair or originality. They draw on traditional stories such as "Journey to the West," about the adventures of the Monkey King, and have yet to invent characters to match the appeal of Mickey Mouse or Japanese icons such as Pokemon.
The cartoon campaign comes amid efforts by President Hu Jintao's government to tighten control over other pop culture, ranging from movies to magazines and Web sites.
TV stations have been told to limit foreign programming, stop showing scary movies in prime time and have their hosts dress more conservatively and use fewer English words on the air.
Most cartoons on China Central Television, the national broadcaster, are Chinese-made. But more freewheeling local broadcasters show everything from "The Simpsons" to Japanese, South Korean and European cartoons dubbed into Chinese.
Film studios have been pushed to merge in order to create big, well-financed competitors. Officials have set up 15 animation centers to nurture the industry, invoking communist guerrilla vocabulary by dubbing them "production bases."
"The reason for the regulation is clear. It is to protect domestic cartoon production," the Southern Metropolis said.
The newspaper cited what it said was a recent study that found that 80 percent of Chinese children surveyed liked foreign cartoons and disliked domestic animation.
Chinese studios employ thousands of skilled animators, but many focus on doing work subcontracted by Walt Disney Co., Warner Bros. and other Western or Japanese studios.
Broadcasters were told to limit use of foreign cartoons in 2000 at a time when Japanese animation dominated the market. In 2004, the government stepped up controls, saying Chinese cartoons had to account for at least 60 percent of the total shown in prime time.
In February, regulators banned programs that mix animation with live characters in an apparent effort to protect Chinese studios, which don't produce such programming. Regulators haven't released details, but the ban could affect popular children's TV shows such as "Blue's Clues" from the United States and Britain's "Teletubbies."
The government also protects Chinese film studios by limiting imports of foreign titles. But that strategy appears to have backfired by creating a market for pirated movies, which both foreign and Chinese studios say robs them of box office revenues.
On Sunday, Chinese moviemakers accused TV stations of becoming part of the nation's thriving movie piracy industry, airing up to 1,500 pirated Chinese movies a year.
Beijing also has thrown up barriers to other pop culture.
In April, the government disclosed it was no longer granting publishing licenses for foreign magazines in an effort to protect its domestic industry. That came after a joint venture that published a Chinese edition of "Rolling Stone" was forced to dissolve after a single issue.
"The Simpsons" airs on FOX, which is owned by the parent company of FOXNews.com.