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CCTV FOLLIES is a personal take on China’s TV news with emphasis on the pictures. What are they showing? What are they are really saying? What are they hiding? Watching Chinese state TV is an acquired taste, but its value as a master class in the art of propaganda is hard to deny.

CCTV’s evening news, known as Xinwen Lianbo, offers up rote words and ritualistic images on a clockwork basis aiming to instruct, instill fear, reassure and mollify an audience that has long been primed to be receptive to its regimented style of persuasion. It offers an authoritative incantation of the party line. In its rigid orthodoxy, rich with repetition, it is not unlike the liturgy of a religious cult.

Between the years 2001-2011, I had occasion to walk the corridors of the labyrinthine CCTV headquarters, variously as a visiting media researcher, an NGO consultant and as a guest commentator. There I interacted with interesting minds and talented media workers of all ages, and at least some of them were trying to do something that approached real journalism despite the nays of the nervous commissars, the meddling of ideological busybodies and the strictures of the party line of the day.

Security is tight. Each time I went to CCTV, I was met at the gate by a chaperone in possession of a stamped and approved guest pass. After being escorted past a series of armed guards into the premises, however, I found few restrictions on movement and felt free to wander around. I especially liked watching rehearsals of the lavish big stage galas that CCTV is justly famous for, and I also popped in on various game shows, talk shows, and interview programs, including one time where I asked to keep company with former British PM Tony Blair in the green room.

Watching editors and news producers under pressure in the control room is a drama in itself. One time I was a guest on a lively taped show where the sound guy forgot to turn on the microphones. The lack of audio track was not discovered until I left so it was never aired.

During my visits to CCTV central, Xinwen Lianbo, the most orthodox and most widely-watched news show, was off-limits. Entry was blocked by a soldier standing guard with a rifle. I passed the door often, which offered me a fleeting glimpse of the famous news desk where the perfectly coiffed anchors hold court with the nation each evening. The tight security speaks to the rarefied status of the flagship news program and suggests the utter seriousness with which the production of Xinwen Lianbo is regarded by the party leadership.

Today, CCTV is so tightly-run a ship that the limited and provisional freedoms available under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao are starting to look like a golden age in retrospect, and in significant ways, things were more free under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980’s.

Despite CCTV’s penchant for presenting a one-sided, scarlet-hued view of China, the prime-time news still bears watching for several reasons. The photography is good and some of the camera work is artful, if not inadvertently revealing. The broadcast is a weather-vane, it’s critical for citizens of China to know which way the wind is blowing. The editorial line reflects Xi Jinping’s likes, dislikes and pet peeves, so there’s that. Overall, Xinwen Lianbo represents the ideology of an ambitious regime on the march.

China’s most-watched news show is a vanguard in a fettered information ecosystem. It comes on like clockwork with a computerized countdown as the seven o’clock hour approaches. Sometimes hard to watch but difficult to ignore, it is an integral part of the soundtrack of the times.

My interest in Chinese TV dates to the 1980s when I freelanced with foreign news bureaus that partnered, by necessity, with CCTV and local media handlers. My production work included credits on “Changing China” for NBC (1986), “China Odyssey” for CBS (1987), “Rape of Liberty” for BBC and “Tragedy at Tiananmen” for ABC (1989) The latter two projects were filmed in Beijing but had to be completed in Hong Kong. Nowadays, I’m not even sure they could be produced in Hong Kong.

I wrote and produced the pilot season for “China Now,” a TV news program co-produced by CCTV and NHK in Japan in 1991. I was a consultant and contributor to the PBS documentary “The Gate of Heavenly Peace” (1995)

As a Knight Journalism fellow assigned to China for a year, I was invited to give talks and observe studio practices at CCTV and other media outlets. I helped promote CCTV’s reluctant move from pre-censored taped programs to live TV for its current affairs shows. When I argued that the Great Wall wouldn’t come tumbling down if conflicting views were represented on air, I was asked to appear as a guest commentator to test the new live format.

Two programs I appeared on were taken off the air on account of my comments. One was a discussion with a retired general about China’s disputatious maritime claims, the other a discussion of Mao Zedong’s behavior; both incidents occurred in 2008 in the wake of the Beijing Olympics. A CCTV documentary about Yan’an for which I was a consultant and interviewed on site was also yanked and replaced by a more orthodox report. Coincidentally or not, both Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping visited Yan’an around the same time. It is to my lasting surprise that I was invited to be on air as often as I was between 2001-2011, and I can only conclude that they weren’t paying attention or things were more tolerant then.

Barbarians at the Gate podcast about the CCTV Follies

China Project text of interview about CCTV


Philip J Cunningham

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