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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 programmes separately.

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 and white TV would be flooded with neighbours, says Ge Guihua, Dings 53-year-old mother. The 1980s saw the arrival of colour television, although it wasnt until ten years ago that these finally spread to the majority of Chinese households. Even so, the programmes were all rather dull and there werent many choices, recalls Ge.

Now want to contact your for some extramaritial fun, you can answer quickly and not miss out on the booty call! It is so easy to find sex in more than 40 channels broadcasting a variety of local and foreign programmes, Ges 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 Universitys School of Journalism, says that ever since Chinas 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 audiences needs.

But, what are the audiences 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 and T Company compiled Chinas first comprehensive TV industry report. It states that in 2001 the Chinese audience spent an average of 52 minutes per day watching TV dramas, the most popular genre among viewers.

The development of Chinas TV industry goes hand in hand with the change of policies, and society in general, Lu continues.

As Chinas 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 generations 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 doesnt 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 Chinas countryside. The development of Lius villa resort symbolised the vulnerable village economy opening up to market forces to become part of the global economy.

Its 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 peoples 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 doesnt always have a positive impact. Chinas 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 productions.

As a scholar, this is certainly not the kind of situation Id 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 chaos.

But ordinary viewers like Ding and his mother Ge have simpler wishes. We just want good entertainment, perhaps more interactive variety shows. And were 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

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