Posted by Joel Martinsen on Monday, December 17, 2007 at 3:19 AM
And now, tonight's stories
On 6 December, CCTV's evening news program, Xinwen Lianbo (新闻联播, translated in this post as "Network News Broadcast"), introduced a new presenter, Hai Xia, who read the news with veteran anchor Luo Jing. In the days that followed, three other new faces showed up for the 7:00pm news program.
How have they been received? Acclaim has poured in from all quarters. According to an online poll sponsored by CCTV International, People Online, and Sina, the new presenters were deemed satisfactory by more than 85% of the 400,000 respondents. Even SARFT, which is rarely pleased with anything these days, posted a short notice on its website hailing the organized, effective manner in which CCTV is training anchors for the future.
The network had previously tested out new anchors on 5 June, 2006, but the following day everything was back to normal. Although an online poll taken after that broadcast showed a 68% approval rating, there were complaints that the two new anchors, Kang Hui, in his 30s, and Li Zimeng, 28, lacked the gravity that the older anchors had brought to the news.
This round of changes is being done more systematically. To ease the transition, each new presenter is paired with one of the current six.* Kang Hui, Li Zimeng, Hai Xia, and Guo Zhijian will work with Luo Jing, Xing Zhibin, and the other familiar faces rather than holding down an entire program on their own. To show that things are really serious this time, CCTV has come up with a catchy four-part slogan: "Adding, not subtracting; training new people; veterans lead new arrivals; old and new advance together."
Guo Zhijian 郭志坚
Interest in CCTV's changes hasn't been limited to the domestic media. On 14 December, Xinhua's International Herald Leader summarized the reaction in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore.
Taiwan's CTI TV reported on the changes in a broadcast on 8 December that said "the new anchors will make CCTV news more watchable." (Other Chinese newspapers reported the exact time—one minute forty-nine seconds—devoted to this news item.) Korea's Chosun Ilbo was quoted as saying that the personnel changes were designed to update the stodginess of the old news crew.
On the negative side of things, Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao felt that the new faces slid too easily into the old mould: "the individuality of the young anchors was homogenized by the rigor of the Network News Broadcast." The paper noted that Kang Hui and Li Zimeng were much more muted this year than in their one appearance together in 2006.
Do the changes have implications beyond the ratings game? IHL turned to a professor of communications at Tsinghua University:
In an editorial for this week's Southern Weekly, Southern Metropolis Weekly editor Chang Ping offered a different reason for that over-interpretation (an extended version is available on his blog):
Overanalysing CCTV faces is due to a lack of informationby Chang Ping / SW
CCTV's Network News Broadcast brought four new anchors to the fore this week. The new faces boosted ratings to a peak of twice what they normally are. To win such success without changing either the anchors' style or the program content is quite unexpected.
Instead of saying that the new faces have brought about a new climate, careful analysis suggests that it might be better to say that everyone's curiosity was sparked by the information about the program changes. Updating the program is seen as renewal within CCTV, and renewal within CCTV is seen as a sign of renewal within the upper leadership. Someone suggested that this analysis is over-reaching, that there is no reason to make such a fuss. For its part, CCTV said that these are normal working arrangements, and that it hoped the audience would react calmly. From a purely theoretical standpoint, this is entirely correct. However, in reality, audiences are not so simple. Living under conditions where there is a long-term lack of political information has cultivated a habit of paying attention to the slightest detail in order to extrapolate the big picture.
Hai Xia 海霞
Obviously, CCTV's Network News Broadcast is not a typical program. It is an important propaganda tool for the ruling party, and its rigid format has a certain symbolic meaning. For this very reason, though the news-readers' framework is out of date and their style is obsolete, CCTV cannot readily make changes. Modern media theorists could never have imagined that the personnel changes at the Network News Broadcast would being with a proposal made by a CPPCC member [Ye Hongming]. That proposal said: "In a certain respect, a Network News Broadcast presenter has the nature of a government press spokesperson and represents the image of the entire country." This expresses how people truly see the image and function of the Network News Broadcast.
Whether for the sake of the country or for their own personal interests, people are brimming with a strong curiosity about politics. Although political transparency has been rising by leaps and bounds, the fact that the personnel changes at the Network News Broadcast have been over-analyzed demonstrates that the public has not yet left behind its old habits of mystifying politics, and it proves that political information is still insufficient and unable to satisfy the demands of society. Of course, foraging for food after dinner may be for some other reason besides an empty stomach: it may simply be a personal hobby. A minority can be granted this right, but the majority should not be forced to go "hunting."
On the one hand, CCTV enjoys a monopoly on political information, but on the other, it wants to become a member of the modern media. It is in an awkward situation, one that it will have to make the best of, from the looks of things now. And it may prove difficult to fulfill both goals in the long term. Thinking like normal media, CCTV ought to choose the market instead of planning. In this respect, the changes at the Network News Broadcast have come too late; they're just patching the fence after the sheep have fled. Audiences should vote with their remotes to compel CCTV to deign to satisfy their needs rather than simply crying out for livelier programming. Rather than over-analyzing the changes at the Network News Broadcast, why not simply ask for more complete political information and pursue a better democratic life.
Paris-based journalist Xiong Peiyun took a look back at CCTV's missed opportunities in a column for Southern Metropolis Daily:
Network News Broadcast or Network Propaganda Broadcast?by Xiong Peiyun / SMD
An old program and several old faces. That the changing of the news readers at the Network News Broadcast should become a "top story" in the Chinese media—over the past few years newspapers have even written editorials about it—is without a doubt one of the peculiarities of this age of transition.
Although I left the Network News Broadcast behind long ago, I still can understand quite well the joyful applause of some in the audience. Like exchanging the family's 14-inch black & white TV for a stylish new LCD screen—it's normal human emotion to be excited about this for a few minutes. Of course, I also understand how some other people object: if the program content doesn't improve, then all the faces in the world won't make a difference.
No one questions the major influence that the Network News Broadcast has on Chinese political life. In China, if the foreign media invite you out to eat, and if it happens to be night-time, then in many cases you may waste time waiting for them. They will often rush over after watching the end of the Network News Broadcast. Of course, the broadcast is a required course for so many foreign reporters stationed in China for a simple reason: it is one window onto Chinese politics, a barometer, a monitor on which Chinese politics are exhibited to the world.
Kang Hui 康辉
In today's world, many people resist television because it is "government in the dining room." But in China, the Network News Broadcast is even more like a government spokesperson. Since it began broadcasting on New Year's Day, 1978, the Network News Broadcast has scrupulously observed its mission to be the "promote the voice of the party and the government, and to broadcast the great matters of the day." In a sense, this principle determines the true nature of the Network News Broadcast as a "network propaganda broadcast."
Obviously, news is different from propaganda: news can occur and be broadcast at any time, while propaganda is planned and slanted, with repetition valued over long-term effectiveness and preaching emphasized over facts. One difference to the audience may be that news can be used to analyze the parties involved in the news, while propaganda can be used to analyze the propagandists. The attentive can even guess at the pulse of politics and future directions in this transitional society.
People watch the Network News Broadcast for another major reason: the program has a "partial monopoly" on the dissemination of Chinese political information. Beginning with the broadcast of the 12th National Party Congress in 1982, the central authorities granted the Network News Broadcast exclusive rights to air major news items one day before other media. The authoritative, rigid image of the Network News Broadcast and its role in handing down the voice of the leadership gradually took shape. Obviously, this advantageous system exceeds the typical set-up of a normal news program. In truth, this is why the Network News Broadcast is not merely a network broadcast of the news; it also is a network broadcast of the way all the pieces line up on the board. Without exception, all provinces and cities rebroadcast this two-headed, uneasy mode of reporting.
Some may say that the Network News Broadcast is China's most successful means of "governing with the news" (新闻执政), but from the perspective of political communication, a news broadcast technique that has propaganda results as its primary goal is inseparable from the "rule by propaganda" (宣传统治) of traditional political communication. The difference between the two lies in the fact that in governing with the news, the government preserves a cooperative relationship with the media: it sets the media agenda and the public agenda through declarations, actions, and policies. Rule by propaganda, on the other hand, expresses itself as the government's direct involvement in the media: it exceeds its authority by directly setting the media's agenda.
It must be acknowledged that on the road to openness, China has begun to transition from rule by propaganda to governing through news. Officials from the State Council Information Office have even said that the Chinese government's attitude toward the news media is in the process of transitioning from the traditional "media control" and "media management" to "media cooperation."
The thirty years of the Network News Broadcast have also been thirty years of reform and opening up. To an extent, it is the reform done in miniature. Those familiar with the history of the Network News Broadcast know that the program has actually tried to adapt to the rules of journalism in the past. On 29 January, 1986, "America's Space Shuttle 'Challenger' Explodes" led the broadcast in place of the normal run-down by rank of the central leadership's activities or the day's major domestic news. However, this pioneering stroke failed to win support, or it was unsustainable on its own, so more than a decade later, the world-changing 9-11 incident was not broadcast as a major story on the program. But can you say that CCTV didn't have the resources or the professional skills?
Li Zimeng 李梓萌
Televisions sales are up, but the Network News Broadcast viewership is dropping. This is clearly tied to delays in reforming the program. Correspondingly, as the reform and opening up has progressed, the political and authoritative capital that the program relies on for its reputation is ebbing away. With the flourishing of the Internet, the news marketplace has subdivided and channels for people to obtain information have multiplied. Even for "great and useful" political information, people turn to government websites.
Thirty years of the Network News Broadcast. For the majority of Chinese media, living in this era of fast yet sluggish transition, a program that has had a 30-year lifespan can truly be called "immortal." Unfortunately, when I think back on this unchanging, diamond-class program, the only words that I can think of to sum up these thirty years are, "The news is still far off, and network broadcasts are always propaganda." And this awful impression is clearly not something that can be changed by simply swapping in a couple of charming young faces.
Zhang Wen, a long-time newsweekly reporter who is currently head of the editorial department at Xinhua's Globe magazine, doesn't watch Network News but still congratulated the program in this recent blog post:
Congratulations to Network News for bringing in new faces!by Zhang Wen
Old faces give way to new ones, but the song remains the same
Reports about the Network News Broadcast bringing in new people have been online for several days. Involved in the news myself, I saw the information a while ago, but I have been too lazy to go watch the program. It's been years since I even glanced at it.
What sort of attraction is there in an old face sitting there reading "eight-legged" news in solemn tones year after year?! At any rate, it doesn't attract a man like me in the prime of life. I yearn for news like that overseas nude broadcast, but unfortunately I cannot watch it.
If I want to understand domestic and international affairs, I can watch Phoenix, or I could go on the Internet! Why should I set a time to attend to a greying old woman and listen to her prattle on?!
Li Juan (李娟), early CCTV anchor.
We audiences have been dissatisfied for quite some time, and our throats have grown hoarse from calling for change. Last year they finally tested a couple of new faces, and although they were late in coming, they still won significant praise. Who'd have thought that in the end, the old faces would be back in place?
I'm confused at how difficult it is to find someone new to fill such an undemanding position. Someone once said that the old-timers have significant political experience and won't exceed the bounds of propriety. Of course this is one reason. But since the Du Xian affair in 1989 [when Du Xian and Xue Fei were canned for going off-message], what journalist—a CCTV news anchor, no less—would be careless around politics?
I can only read one thing from this substitution: structural inertia is a consideration even when changing a Network News Broadcast reader. To break a long-standing taboo requires immense courage!
Today, we still cannot openly reflect on the Cultural Revolution, nor can we openly reflect on the "merits and faults" of certain great individuals: we leave the next generation an ambiguous contemporary history.
The Network News Broadcast finally changed personnel following the leadership changes of the 17th Party Congress. But I long ago lost interest, and I won't watch those new folks read that "old news." However, change is a good thing.
For this change, I sincerely congratulate CCTV and the Network News Broadcast!
Note: The six established anchors are: Xing Zhibin (started in 1981), Luo Jing (1983), Li Ruiying (1986), Li Xiuping (1989), Wang Ning(1989), and Zhang Hongmin, who started sometime in the early 80s. There's a gallery of old stills from the program here.
Links and Sources
Jobs in China
Henry on The Eurasian Face
Caroline W on Big in China
Michael on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"
Brandon K. on Clueless academic takes on popular fantasy novels
China Media Timeline
Major media events over the last three decades
Danwei Model Workers
The latest recommended blogs and new media
Books on China
The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
Front Page of the Day
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From the Vault
Classic Danwei posts
+ Korean history doesn't fly on Chinese TV screens (2007.09): SARFT puts the kibbosh on Korean historical dramas.
+ Religion and government in an uneasy mix (2008.03): Phoenix Weekly (凤凰周刊) article from October, 2007, on government influence on religious practice in Tibet.
+ David Moser on Mao impersonators (2004.10): I first became aware of this phenomenon in 1992 when I turned on a Beijing TV variety show and was jolted by the sight of "Mao Zedong" and "Zhou Enlai" playing a game of ping pong. They both gave short, rousing speeches, and then were reverently interviewed by the emcee, who thanked them profusely for taking time off from their governmental duties to appear on the show.