Over the past decade Chinese television has become a popular topic for researchers. Scholars have theorized, analysed, and interpreted programmes, discussed policies on censorship and examined attempts by foreigners to penetrate the national market.
I started my academic career researching Chinese television. In 1993, while living in Tianjin I was drawn to a must-see TV serial called Beijingers in New York (Beijing ren zai NiuYue). It was something quite new for Chinese television at the time, a tale about peoples’ life outside China. My PhD, completed in 1999, was about Chinese television drama during the early to mid-1990s, a particularly innovative period when a number of new urban genres emerged, inspired by popular fiction. I followed these genres with interest. The imagination of producers and writers seemed to be fermenting something important, connecting with a younger generation of viewers.
In 2010, Michael Curtin asked me if I could write a book about China’s television industry for the BFI series. The innovative serials of the 1990s had passed into history, replaced by a spate of historical costume dramas. I confessed that I had stopped watching Chinese television and therefore was not well positioned to pass judgement on recent developments. Of course, I had viewed television intermittently on my numerous research trips to China but not enough to get a sense of how it was evolving.
Following my early work on television drama I spent several years exploring related media development and creative industries including TV formats, art districts, media bases and cultural clusters. Between 2005 and 2010, I visited up to a hundred so-called ‘cultural and creative clusters’. Many were media production bases; many others housed small private media companies. I noticed that a lot of the companies were producing content or providing services for the television industry.
In 2012, my excuse of unfamiliarity with the state of the Chinese television industry became indefensible. I acquired a satellite dish from a dealer in Brisbane’s Chinatown that delivered a hundred or so channels in real time. Everything was now available: from CCTV news, talk shows, lifestyle shows to popular satellite channel programmes like If You Are the One. Then while I was teaching in Hong Kong in mid-2013, I noticed a device called a TV PAD in an electronics market in Shan Shui Po. The advertisement on the English brochure said:
TVpad is the most popular TV box which allow (sic) you to watch 100+ Chinese TV
channels, it looks exactly like a Roku or Apple TV. Has HDMI, USB, TFcard, Network connect and can stream up to 1080p, more and more Chinese use it as a TV overseas.
It is also a great gift for Chinese!!
This IPTV platform, like many others now available on the market, was making Chinese television accessible to overseas audiences. I wondered: could this be a window for China’s soft power? A year later I revisited the same market only to find an empty space in front of a shop advertising products and merchandise of the Mainland Chinese video site, LeTV. I asked a gentleman sporting a LeTV T-shirt about the vendors and the reply in Chinese was ‘they returned to Shanghai; their activities were illegal.’ I realized that in the space of one year that LeTV and similar sites had become the legally constituted representatives of Chinese soft power abroad.
Approaches in flux
When I began to survey published work on Chinese television I realised that I had a different perspective to offer. Most studies were constructing oppositional categories: West/ China; capitalism/ ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’; pluralism/authoritarianism; modernity/tradition, global/local and so on. Some writers resolved these dialectical oppositions by pointing to compromises and tensions between these forces. My own research led me to believe that oppositional framings have their limits in explaining change; in other words, there’s more happening in the middle than at the extremes. Moreover, while the notion of alliances e.g. between transnational capital and authoritarianism, appears to be a neat way through the impasse, I believe it is somewhat expedient and one-dimensional when one takes account of the complex play of international and domestic forces that now shape China’s media markets.
Many authors tend to isolate Chinese television, to see it only within its national container. Indeed, the Chinese television industry is often characterised as comprising the national network, China Central Television (CCTV), several highly profitable media groups—mostly in the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, a smaller number of entrepreneurial provincial networks and satellite stations in central and southern China, and a multitude of provincial, city and cable stations. A tendency, particularly within international journalism, moreover, has been to equate ‘China’s media’ with the authoritarian party-state. Inherent in this approach is a comparison with Western ‘free media’, as if the successes of the free ‘West’ validate China’s failure. But where is the West? Does the ‘West’ refer to all democratic nations or just nations with a European enlightenment heritage?
Trying to understand the Chinese television industry using dialectical framings does not reveal much about the internal workings of the system unless oppositional forces are understood as changing the media environment. If the academic output on the Chinese television industry is an indicator we are led to believe that it is slow to adapt to change, constrained by government intervention, and dominated by news, TV drama serials, and lifestyle programmes.
If we look back at the history of the television industry in China these approaches appear perfectly defensible; the rate of change was modest during the first four decades, a time when development was contained by politics and relatively unaffected by foreign media. Yet although stations were geographically contained there were many attempts to break free of the hold of regulators. My time spent examining formats and ‘creative industries’ had led me a different way of understanding the key issues in Chinese television. Television is a creative industry: its workforce includes writers, producers, technicians, set designers, web designers, actors, and marketing people. Yet because of the political roles of the communication industries in China, particularly news media, television personnel were reluctant to be creative or to take risks; they relied on international models, for example, imported formats and genres, to provide ways forward.
Change is accelerating and for this reason approaches must be framed in relation to international developments. Chinese television content, apart from some local genres such as skits (xiaopin), resembles what is made and seen internationally. But which parts of China’s television industry are influenced by global developments? Conversely how is China’s television industry impacting on global audiences? Perhaps more common ground exists than we are led to believe. So much has changed in the way that Chinese television is produced, distributed and accessed. My objective is therefore to offer a fresh perspective.
Charting another way forward
My approach represents an extended discussion on the detachment of the Chinese television industry from its institutional moorings taking into account deregulation, imports, exports, regional initiatives, and finally cross platform alliances. I have avoided analysis of programmes except where this is critical to the theme of the chapter. The reader will also note a relative absence in the text of industrial data, policies and regulations.
In contrast to most existing work by Chinese media scholars I frame television as a rapidly evolving medium that is cross-platform and transcultural in its operations. Because the word ‘television’ generally implies networks, channels, and programmes, few studies have countenanced the dynamic link between television and online video platforms. The new video market, however, is not separate from the traditional television market. Jiyoung Cha says, ‘Online video platforms, which allow people to stream video content on a computer through the internet, coexist with television.’[i] The competition between old and new platforms in China cannot simply be accounted for as convenience of viewing or a lifestyle choice. The content that is produced for online platforms is both similar yet different from that of broadcasters: similar because it is entertainment-based yet fundamentally different because it is fresher and more risk-taking.
In many respects China’s new media companies are leading the way globally in content innovation. Innovation is unavoidable if Chinese television is to produce content that can be sold offshore. Technological innovation has impacted on formats; creators of televisual content now range from professional producers to amateurs. While quality serial drama has become more expensive, entertainment formats that require less human capital have found ways of reaching audiences. Indeed, the economics of production predisposes networks to look for ways to take advantage of free labour.
Chapter one introduces the term ‘television industry’ as well as the key frames of analysis I use to describe the evolution of Chinese television. I argue that the Chinese television industry is becoming more like its international counterparts despite the tight rein of state regulators: it is professionalising and consolidating, while at the same time building alliances with digital media companies. I briefly describe how and why this is occurring and provide some basic information on structure, networks, ownership, and regulation, as well as key players, foreign interests, and content production models. To illustrate the similarities and differences I look at how a television drama is conceived, developed and marketed in China today in comparison with Hollywood. Much of the information presented in brief in chapter one is developed in more detail in the ensuing chapters.
Chapter two begins with the inception of television broadcasting in China. I provide some background to the introduction of this modern technology, which was adjudged to be inferior to radio broadcasting during the 1950s and 1960s. I briefly outline the uneven development of infrastructure through the 1970s, a period of excessive politicisation, and the subsequent take-off during the 1980s when the introduction of a decentralization policy led to a surge in infrastructure, an expansion of channels, and a search for cheap programmes. I then address the issue of how audience research developed during the 1980s and 1990s as well as showing why foreign programming left deep impressions on Chinese audiences, in contrast to the dry, political content produced to placate officials in the Ministry of Radio Film and Television (later SARFT). I note the consolidation of media groups in the late 1990s, a topic that I return to in chapter five. In the second part of this chapter I briefly survey two dominant types of programming in China during the early years of the industry, serial drama and news.
Chapter three concerns the internationalisation of Chinese television, focusing on collaboration and trade. I begin with a discussion of the revitalisation of the domestic television industry under the policy drive known as the ‘reform of the cultural system.’ In 2003, reform was elevated to a new level when the term ‘industry’ was mandated in policy documents, along with industrial terminologies such as the cultural and creative industries. The problem that the Chinese television industry faced was how to reconcile profitability with the interests of its principal shareholders, the Chinese state. Television needed to find ways to ‘go out’ and this was achieved thanks to technology. By the mid-2000s the core international audiences for China-made content in the Diaspora had the technological means to watch programmes in real time. China’s televisual ‘soft power’ was therefore fundamentally directed at overseas Chinese rather than ‘foreign audiences.’
I argue that the Chinese government embrace of soft power was precipitated to a large extent by the rise of popular media content in the region. This leads to a discussion of East Asian pop culture, particularly the Korean Wave and Japan’s ‘gross national cool.’ Many East Asian programmes embodied a modern style of production, incorporating creative elements that were lacking in Mainland productions. By the first decade of the new millennium the creative and technical expertise of East Asian media personnel was acknowledged by Chinese production houses. In comparison China’s media, typified by a sprawling and highly regulated television sector, was dogged by duplication of content, censorship, an aversion to taking risk, and localism. In the following section I address the issue of co-production. Finally I examine the success of Phoenix TV and the relative lack of success of Rupert Murdoch in China. While Murdoch’s star has waned, I look at how foreign players are looking to find a way into the market, where they are positioning themselves, and the problems they face.
In chapter four I look at how formatting has transformed China’s television industry. Chinese television producers have borrowed from international programmes since the 1980s but it is only in the past several years that entertainment formats—reality shows, talent contents and celebrity challenges—have become mainstream fare. Many channels have adopted similar entertainment programme strategies, exploiting the global diffusion of format ideas. To contextualize the development of the format industry in China I return to the early days of programme clones. My discussion is therefore less about variation in television texts than similarities. Accordingly, I will note some claims of plagiarism among television stations in China and the flow-on effects that litigation, or more precisely threats of litigation, have had on industry practice. I begin with a discussion of some unlicensed adaptations before moving on to how licensing came to be accepted, leading to a spate of imported formats. A question then arises: are TV formats a threat to Chinese culture or do they incorporate and repackage Chinese culture in new ways? A further line of investigation emerges in relation to China’s own outward bound strategies: Will China become a sender rather than a receiver of formats? Will other countries be buying programme ideas from China in the future?
In chapter five I examine channels and content, including production companies and production bases. I begin with the idea of clustering before turning to the development of two major media clusters, the Beijing CBD International Media Cluster and the Hengdian World Studios in central Zhejiang Province. I look at the evolution of CCTV and its overseas interests. I then turn to the rise of private media companies. Following this I examine specialist channels: these are illustrated in the first instance by so-called economic channels and later by a diversification of lifestyle programmes. Finally, I look at documentary and children’s programmes.
In chapter six I examine the impact of online companies and their business strategies: including BesTV, CNTV, Sohu, IQiYi, LeTV, Ku6, Youku-Tudou, PPTV, and PPS. These players have transformed the Chinese television industry, following the lead set by their international counterparts Netflix, Google/YouTube, Apple’s iTunes, and Amazon. I examine how they are redefining creation, production and consumption; how they are diversifying their services; and how they are collaborating with traditional broadcasters and production companies. Following this I provide an overview of the technological environments that have allowed the uptake of digital TV, smart television, IPTV and mobile TV. By mobile TV I refer to television content that is displayed in the built environment. I note some short form entertainment offered in taxis, subways and transit spaces and show how these new mobile ‘settings’ reorganize the viewing experience.
I conclude with some thoughts on research into China’s media. I believe much current research suffers from ‘hardening of the categories’, a tendency to seek out totalizing explanations. The idea that China’s television is rapidly changing, even innovating, does not fit such schemas. Taking into account the arguments I have presented over the previous six chapters I propose the model of a ‘cultural innovation timeline’ as a way to show the uneven development of the medium in China. The timeline encompasses six stages: standardization, imitation, collaboration, trade, clustering and creative communities (which I also refer to as convergence).
I hope this book will contribute to discussion about the challenges facing Chinese media workers as business models implode and genres diversify—a reality that is commonplace in all countries and regions today.
China is not ‘exceptional’ or unique.
[i] Jiyoung Cha, ‘Predictors of television and online video platform use: a coexistence model of old and new video platforms,’ Telematics and Informatics 30 (2013), p. 297.