China sees TV as foreign-policy vehicle

At a recent art exhibition in Beijing, painter Wang Mai took as his theme media interpretations of the Iraq war.

A five-year plan seeks to make China's voice heard globally

Among his set of six canvases that were mostly covered with images of Saddam Hussein’s two sons was one entitled Al-Jazeera TV, an abstract work that Wang said represented the role the television channel had played in challenging the dominance of Western networks.

Followed not just by Chinese artists but also by government officials and intellectuals, the Aljazeera story has become a sort of model for China’s own attempts to create a globally recognised television network.

Initially suspicious of the Qatar-based media group after US statements that it was a mouthpiece for Usama bin Laden, Chinese television was previously prohibited from using Aljazeera footage and the Aljazeera bureau in Beijing used to struggle to get government interviews.

Discarding their original preconceptions during the Iraq war, Chinese officials are now looking at Aljazeera from a different angle. How can a developing country produce an internationally successful television network?

Twofold objective

Often described as a giant, and a not very efficient, bureaucracy, the state-run China Central Television (CCTV) late last year launched the first in a series of continent-wide satellite subscription packages.

Now beaming into North American and Asian living rooms, the 17-channel Great Wall Package (a combination of multilingual CCTV and regional Chinese channels) is the start of a five-year plan to broadcast CCTV across the globe.

Aljazeera's success has becomea sort of model for the Chinese
Aljazeera’s success has becomea sort of model for the Chinese

Aljazeera’s success has become
a sort of model for the Chinese

The thinking behind this is twofold. The first is political. The second is economic.

“China feels its voice should be heard internationally. It wants people overseas to know the truth about the country,” CCTV’s head of overseas programming, Sheng Yilai, explained.

Currently international airwaves for Mandarin Chinese programming are dominated by the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV and US-based New Tang Dynasty TV, the latter shunned by Beijing for its use of volunteers sympathetic to Falun Gong.

Described in its own literature as “a major mouthpiece of the Communist Party”, CCTV makes no bones about what it represents.

Official mouthpiece

In recent years updating it image in response to domestic network competition by introducing live reports and breaking news bulletins, CCTV news sticks close to the official line.

Believing this to be no bad thing so long as one understands CCTV’s editorial policy, media lecturer Li Xiguang sees the internationalisation of CCTV as an important component in achieving China’s foreign-policy objective of a multi-polar world.

Li Xiguang: Global TV audience iskey to China's foreign-policy aim
Li Xiguang: Global TV audience iskey to China’s foreign-policy aim

Li Xiguang: Global TV audience is
key to China’s foreign-policy aim

“President Hu Jintao wants CCTV to be a third media balance with Europe and the United States,” Li said.

News, however, is only one part of the Great Wall Package. Aiming to promote Chinese culture and society, the package includes programming on sports, films, current affairs and soap operas, an area of Chinese television which has in recent years won plaudits for its tackling of thorny issues such as domestic abuse and premarital sex.

Including the domestically well-established English language channel CCTV 9, which now employs foreign news anchors and presenters, as well as a recently established French and Spanish channel, the package is also targeted at non-Mandarin speakers.

Already the North American package has attracted 10,000 subscribers each paying $30 a month. Fifty thousand subscribers represent the break-even point. Launched in Asia this February CCTV anticipates a faster pick-up rate amongst the region’s sizeable Chinese communities.

Media power

In addition are the demands of increasing numbers of Chinese nationals now travelling and living overseas. According to government figures, 28.9 million Chinese went overseas in 2004 and the World Tourism Organisation estimate this will grow to 100 million by 2020.

“In the long term
CCTV is aiming to become a globally recognised brand and global broadcaster
along the lines of BBC”

David Wolf,
Burston Marsteller,
PR company

Coming at the same time as construction begins on its new $1.3 billion headquarters, a giant, gravity-defying twisted doughnut that is destined to become the architectural face of modern Beijing, CCTV’s overseas expansion also encapsulates its vision as a major media power.

“In the long term CCTV is aiming to become a globally recognised brand and global broadcaster along the lines of BBC,” David Wolf of public-relations firm Burston Marsteller says. And with the Beijing Olympics in three years, CCTV will be well positioned able to use this global event to build its brand.

In part a reaction to the increasing competitiveness of domestic Chinese television, CCTV sees overseas markets as long-term sources of revenue from subscriptions and advertising. Within five years the average urban family will be able to receive 300 channels through cable; CCTV currently operates only 13.

Overseas tastes

Currently in negotiations to launch in Africa and Europe, Shen Yilai sees no reason why local advertisers should not choose to use CCTV as their media platform once healthy subscription levels are reached.

Painter Wang Mai sees Aljazeeraas an inspiring media presence
Painter Wang Mai sees Aljazeeraas an inspiring media presence

Painter Wang Mai sees Aljazeera
as an inspiring media presence

“We will be considering the tastes of the overseas viewer in our programming,” Sheng says, adding that he anticipates the use of localised content – in other words, use of Chinese Americans to make programmes for the North American market if subscription numbers warrant it.

Since the late 1990s, CCTV has embarked on a series of internal reforms and revampings, including enlisting the help of advisers sent from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Persons familiar with the organisation say that while improvements have been made, doing business with CCTV remains a frustratingly long-drawn-out process.

Unsure as to how successful it will be, CCTV’s Sheng Yilai is for now emphasising caution. “Lets see how it goes. We are taking it one step at a time,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera