By Benjamin Ross
After almost a month as the co-host of “I Love Health” I am beginning to understand a thing or two about Chinese TV. The major observation I often hear about Chinese TV (from Chinese and foreigners alike) is that it is full of low quality programming. I now have several Chinese close friends with good English who frequently download American TV shows from the Internet. They all have all unequivocally told me that the American shows are superior to Chinese ones, and say that when given the choice, they would never watch a Chinese TV program over an American one too. Based on my own personal limited exposure to Chinese television (and TV as a whole), I would have to say I agree with this assertion.
There are several theories why Chinese TV is so…how can I put this nicely?…crappy. One is that the Chinese education does not emphasize creativity and arts as much as that of the West, and this is reflected by the film and television industry. While there is truth to this statement, I think it only represents a piece of the puzzle. Another factor is the relative youth of the Chinese TV/film industry. While the industry itself is not that young, it must be put into perspective that only three decades ago, the only TV and films permitted were those glorifying the Communist Party.
But another reason I am finding for the severe lack of quality programming in China is massive dilution of the talent pool. Much of this is because the Chinese media is still runs essentially like a 单位 (danwei), the old work units which were the building blocks of Socialism. While private enterprise is rapidly rendering the concept of a danwei job obsolete, government offices, schools, public hospitals, and the media all still operate under the old danwei system. What this means is endless levels of hierarchy, webs of bureaucracy, and at the very top cadres with leather day planners who don’t seem to do any actual work, but somehow have the highest salaries and the personal drivers.
Chinese TV operates under this system. Chinese TV has 3 levels: Central Television (CCTV) which is based out of Beijing, provincial television, and city television. CCTV is available all over China. Provincial channels are usually available regionally (i.e. Fujian Provincial TV in most Southeastern provinces, as well as most major cities), and local channels are typically only available in the cities they are broadcast from.
Unlike the US however, where local stations are typically only responsible for local news, in China local stations are often responsible for their own programming. Because of this, production, directing, and acting talent are all spread around the country, rather than being focused on several major TV networks, and then syndicated across the country. Consider my show as an example. My co-host, Zheng Zheng, is only one year out of college. She is attractive, speaks perfect Mandarin, and does a decent job reporting news with me on “I Love Health.” However, she is probably one of several thousand, and would not stand a chance compared to the announcers on CCTV. Then there is Ting Ting who writes and directs all of our material. Ting Ting does an excellent job preparing the material, and coaching Zheng Zheng and my performance. However, she just graduated college this spring…with an advertising degree…and she is the writer for a TV show. I know friends in the US who studied screen writing 4 years in college, waited tables in Hollywood another 4, and still never got their chance to write anything. Then of course there is me. Granted I speak Chinese, but so do several tens of thousands of other foreigners in China. I think I do a moderately decent job overall as an announcer, but there is no chance I would be on TV if shows if they were all centralized, even accounting for the fact I am a Westerner.
When you consider how dispersed the talent is over China, it starts to become clear why programming is so sub-par. The last two shows I was a contestant on, SuperMe and Superstar were both ripoffs of the famous Hunan TV show Super Girls, which is the famous Chinese clone of American Idol. They were both were produced by Fujian provincial TV, yet had no local connection to Fujian. Instead, they were just another one of the several hundred American Idol ripoffs currently in production in China. I can’t help but posit that if TV were centralized, and they rounded up all of the best talent from the hundreds of stations across the country, held try-outs, and began production with a top-notch staff, the quality would vastly improve. Instead, what we are stuck with are hundreds of small local TV stations, all producing their own redundant clones of the same TV shows.
Personally, I sense that a big reason TV centralization has yet to occur is because it would necessitate a restructuring of the system. This would require firing a great deal of the TV deadweight (cadres) as well as trimming down the personnel to only the best the country has to offer. This would not bode well with most of the people who would have the power to bring about such a change, and also would stand to cause considerable “instability,” the ultimate pet peeve of the CCP. Until this happens, we are probably stuck with the same stagnant programming.
Benjamin Ross, http://www.benross.net/wordpress/