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The puzzling history of the Chinese box
It's four o'clock in the afternoon. Eighteen-year-old
Ding Xiao comes home from vocational school and flops into the revolving
chair between his desktop and television set. He swiftly turns on both
machines, and for the rest of the evening will be divided between the
two. Nearly all this young man's spare time is spent watching TV and surfing
the internet. Luckily, there are two 29-inch television sets in his 70
square-metre home so that he and his parents can follow their favourite
Currently Ding is taking a break from his computer game.
He twists his body and the chair swings to face the TV. Ding stretches
out his legs and his finger starts dancing on the remote control.
When the Shanghai Television Station was first established
in 1958, it consisted of just one channel broadcasting twice a week. Come
the 1970s, Shanghai boasted three television channels, although TV sets
were still a luxury for many people. “Back then, a home with a 9-inch
black & white TV would be flooded with neighbours,” says Ge
Guihua, Ding’s 53-year-old mother. The 1980s saw the arrival of
colour television, although it wasn’t until ten years ago that these
finally spread to the majority of Chinese households. Even so, “the
programmes were all rather dull and there weren’t many choices,”
Now, with more than 40 channels broadcasting a variety of local and foreign
programmes, Ge’s teenage son, Ding Xiao, has a difficult time deciding
between Hong Kong soap operas, Korean pop dramas, Japanese cartoons, quiz
shows and cooking competitions.
Lu Ye, professor at the Fudan University’s School
of Journalism, says that ever since China’s first television advertisement
slot was sold in 1979, the domestic TV industry has been gradually transforming
from state-run to self-sufficient.
The change means that all TV stations – be they central, provincial
or municipal – face the constant pressure of survival. This pressure
was further compounded in the mid1990s when many provincial TV channels
gained access to satellite transmission. “How to get the stations
making money has become an increasingly important agenda for the management,
and the answer to that is almost always commercialisation,” Lu explains.
The goal is to attract as many viewers as possible and to achieve this
TV stations must be able to satisfy the audience’s needs.
But, what are the audience’s needs? “For many households,
especially those in smaller cities, television is still the single and
most popular source of family entertainment. People want to laugh and
relax, they don’t like stiff faces or superior attitudes. Instead,
they want to be able to relate to those on TV,” says Lu.
Recently the market research firm Beijing Sino-Video
Milestone S&T Company compiled China’s first comprehensive TV
industry report. It states that in 2002 the Chinese audience spent an
average of 52 minutes per day watching TV dramas, the most popular genre
“The development of China’s TV industry goes
hand in hand with the change of policies, and society in general,”
As China’s economy took off in the 1990s, the newly
created, middle-income urban masses developed a keen interest in trends
and ideas. In contrast with the previous generation’s devotion to
a single cause, these people were more aware of their own individuality
and desires. No longer bound by ideologies, their new way of living was
reflected on screen.
The well-received TV drama Lailai Wangwang (Busy Life)
of the late 1990s is an example. The story centers on a middle-aged career
man whose extramarital affair triggers a series of crises at work and
home. The crises carry a political overtone: shaky marriages were formed
during the planned economy and torn apart in the new era of market economy.
But unlike similar stories depicted on TV and film in the 1980s, Busy
Life doesn’t portray a rebellion against traditional social norms;
simply the pursuit of personal desires.
Another popular TV series, General Manager Liu Laogen,
showed the stumbling establishment of private enterprises in China’s
countryside. The development of Liu’s villa resort symbolised the
vulnerable village economy opening up to market forces to become part
of the global economy.
It’s not only television dramas that have evolved
over the years, says Lu. Most programmes are completely different to those
of ten years ago. To cater for different people’s needs, the channels
are becoming more and more specialised; dividing into genres such as music,
sports, lifestyle and dramas. “There used to be only two news reports
a day, now you have a whole channel for news: breaking news, special news,
in-depth news, news talk, news forum, economic news, entertainment news,
sports news, you name it,” says Wei Jun, news producer at the Shanghai
Broadcasting Network. Ge agrees: “During the Iraqi war there was
24-hour live broadcasting plus expert analysis. You would never have had
that 10 years ago.”
But commercialisation of the domestic TV industry doesn’t
always have a positive impact. “China’s TV industry is in
chaos since it carries three conflicting roles at the same time,”
says Lu. The stations are officially owned by the state; yet they must
survive on their own and fulfil the role of public TV by providing good
quality public education. “So the situation has become like this:
the TV stations function as the mouthpiece of the Party while struggling
to find an individual voice amid fierce competition. The commercialisation
of the entire industry means that fewer and fewer stations want to produce
programmes for the niche market. The screen is filled with cheap mainstream
“As a scholar, this is certainly not the kind of
situation I’d like to see,” Lu stresses. “But I must
also admit that more choices are always better than no choice at all.
Now, we only hope there will soon be proper regulations to solve this
But ordinary viewers like Ding and his mother Ge have
simpler wishes. “We just want good entertainment, perhaps more interactive
variety shows. And we’re also looking forward to the full live coverage
of the Olympics and the 2010 World Expo!”
Full Credit For This Story Goes To: China Daily