Inside Chongqing’s red TV revolution

Earlier this week, Guangdong’s Southern People Weekly ran a report taking an inside look at how Chongqing Satellite TV has made a shift toward the “red” under top leader Bo Xilai’s (薄熙来) broad revival of classic Chinese Communist Party culture, with all of its political undertones.

The report is interesting for a number reasons. First of all, of course, it offers — or purports to offer — an inside perspective on changes in Chongqing, which have either joyed or disgusted Chinese in recent months, depending on who you’re listening to. It provides a picture of news journalists struggling with dwindling budgets as advertising revenues become a thing of the past (dropped by the station itself), and forced to work closely with Party and government authorities on all stories they take on.

Secondly, I think this story, which is from one of China’s most respected professional magazines, should turn attention to basic issues of professionalism. We often provide examples at this site of the courage and professionalism shown by Chinese journalists in a very difficult press climate. But it’s important to remember how far Chinese media still have to go in building up their own professional cultures, which does not necessarily have to be dictated by the political climate.

Specifically, this report relies exclusively on anonymous sources. This is often, many argue, an unavoidable choice in China’s media environment, where sources face a very real risk of reprisal. But this is often used also as a rationale for sloppy reporting.

Tt may make sense, in the case of this report, to withhold the identities of employees still working at Chongqing Satellite TV. But the reporter, Chen Lei (陈磊), even withholds the identity of a journalist source in circumstances that do not seem at all warranted: “There are also those who believe that the programs [at Chongqing Satellite TV] are not bad. Chongqing Daily reporter Zhang Hua (name changed), who has a background in archaeology, confessed that he really enjoys programs on Chongqing Satellite TV and often watches them.”

Is “Zhang Hua” afraid of reprisals from those who might think he’s a Party bootlicker?

The following partial translation picks up partway through the Southern People Weekly report.

The Concerns of Employees

Watching the programs at Chongqing Satellite TV, Dou Dou (name changed) has her own take on the whole thing. Two months ago, she was still an employee there. Almost overnight, she was notified by the unit of her dismissal after a “two-way selection” involving both a written examination and an interview [to determine her suitability for the station, and vice versa]. She had worked for the unit for three years, since 2008.

Also dismissed along with Dou Dou were scores of colleagues from the advertising department — 10 of these were dismissed and more than 20 others uneasily awaited transfers within the organization.

What Dou Dou cares about is when her severance package will come through. “We are young, so if they let us go, that’s that. But what we don’t know is how much severance we’ll receive. They said, you can get the equivalent of a month of salary multiplied by the number of years we worked at the station. But many of us have received only the basic wage since the second half of last year, so this is unfair [if severance is calculated on this basis].” [NOTE: Chinese journalists are generally paid a basic wage with performance-based pay and some subsidies.]

As to the reasons for letting this group of people go, Dou Dou says that the explanation within the station was “an objective economic entity facing major economic changes” — “Actually,” [said Dou Dou], “it was that they would no longer broadcast advertisements.” Before Spring Festival this year, Dou Dou and her colleagues had already heard the winds of change. “Only, we didn’t think changes would happen so fast, and that they would be so intense.”

These aren’t Dou Dou’s concerns alone.

When Ting Ting (name changed), who is on the front lines of news gathering [for Chongqing Satellite TV], saw this reporter, she had just returned from reporting a story. Speaking about the changes since [the station] stopped broadcasting ads, this capable and efficient female journalist clearly felt helpless — “There’s no money. The funds available for program production are so short it’s pitiful!”

Ting Ting’s program is Chongqing Satellite TV’s trump card [one of its key programs], broadcast 20 minutes each day since March 7. But they only have more than 10 people working on the [news] program. Aside from going and recording the program content with the propaganda offices of various city districts, they must “first make contact with the opposite side” (事先和对方联系) when reporting news across provinces (跨省采访).

[Ting Ting explained:] “Only when [the government authorities in the area where we are reporting] agree to help us arrange and pay for the reporting trip, and don’t bring up costs [ie, expect payment] do we dare to go [and report the story]. When we do go, our leaders [in Chongqing] have to remind us that if the other side says they want us to settle accounts, resulting in fees [for the station], we need to explain to them that this is a [reporting] task arranged by the Propaganda Department of Chongqing Municipality, and we have to coordinate with the department on our return.”

[Ting Ting said:] “There’s nothing we can do. The propaganda department doesn’t have any money [to provide for these stories] and the station no longer broadcasts advertisements.” Ting Ting said that according to her understanding, news staff would see generally wage cuts of around 10 percent after the Spring Festival. “That means hundreds of yuan less per month, and cuts are even deeper for logistical staff.”

Many employees at Chongqing Satellite TV said that after former [station] president Li Xiaofeng (李晓枫) was “official detained and interrogated [for disciplinary issues]” (双规) in October 2010, the awkward predicament of the financial situation at Chongqing Satellite TV daily became clearer to staff members. [Unattributed quote:] “Before the Spring Festival, [the station's] Party secretary Liu Wanli (刘万利) held a general meeting of employees and said that the station had come upon a time of great difficulties, and everyone should ready themselves for leaner times. No one ever thought that after the Spring Festival advertisements would be stopped . . . ”

[Unattributed quote:] “Actually, before Spring Festival when principal leaders from the municipal Party committee came to our station and visited with news personnel, praising the good work we had done in producing a red TV channel (红色频道), they raised the issue of stopping the broadcasting of advertisements, saying we should hold on, and that more understanding and support would follow. They also said that when mountain flowers blossom full, [the plum flower] will mingle smiling in their midst. [NOTE: This is from Mao Zedong's poem "Ode to the Plum Blossom." The use of the line here suggests that top Chongqing leaders are confident that more and more people, and more and more Party leaders, will begin to see the wisdom of the change to "red" programming at Chongqing Satellite TV and will follow its example in time.]

Ting Ting sighed: “Not long ago, I heard that the station had stopped giving traffic allowances (车贴) to mid-level Party cadres [at the station], and a number of mid-level cadres started having station vehicles take them to and from work. Aye! They make the rest of us drive ourselves to work, and how unfair to us is that! One time they went out for an interview and a dish [they ordered for a meal] was really tasty, so they wanted to order one more. Their colleague in the finance department warned them: order more and there won’t be enough money!

The Emergence of the “Red Channel”

In the memories of many employees, Chongqing Satellite TV’s transformation into a “red channel” began back in 2008.

That year, Chongqing Satellite TV introduced a new channel branding under the slogan “China stories, world humanity” (故事中国,人文天下) [NOTE: This is an awful translation, suggestions welcome]. They clearly defined a kind of “heroic character” as the external face of the station to be promoted — “The biggest characteristic was to broadcast all sorts of television dramas that could draw larger audiences, and to broadcast these over and over. For example, “Drawing Sword” (亮剑), which was aired scores of times. [NOTE: "Drawing Sword" is a patriotic drama set during the war of resistance against Japan and centering on the Eighth Route Army of the Chinese Communist Party.]

In further programming changes in May 2009, Chongqing Satellite TV moved from a focus on ratings to [a focus on] value orientation: “There was a determination to spend about a year to break loose from the ugly competitive environment [of television] nationally, and seek a sustainable development path promoting advanced mainstream [CCP] culture.”

The focus of these changes was on establishing a movement with Chongqing characteristics of “singing red, reading the [Party] classics, telling [Party] stories and passing along [Party] maxims” . . .

In a publicity document, Chongqing Satellite TV said, “Chongqing will become a cultural high plain, and Chongqing Satellite TV is a critical resource [toward this end]. Chongqing Satellite TV must stand out and stand up.” This speaks the hopes for Chongqing Satellite TV held by principal leaders in the municipal Party committee, and is the goal toward which Chongqing’s broadcast industry is struggling generally.

At the annual China Media Congress in 2009, Chongqing Satellite TV was designated as one of China’s top ten satellite television stations. But by this time, audience ratings were seldom raised at all. At the “two meetings” [of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congess] in 2010, then president Li Xiaofeng said: “Audience ratings are the root of all evil in our country’s television sector. It is a statistical technique that entirely excludes the [cultural] elite from the investigative sample.”

Li said that Chongqing Satellite TV had cut out selection shows [resembling, for example, the American Idol-like Super Girl program on Hunan TV] and replaced them with a big lineup of heroically themed and revolutionary history themed programs, which had been well-received by various quarters. What people could not understand [subsequently], however, was how Chongqing Satellite TV’s ratings had slipped from fourth position in 2008 to tenth position in 2009, and to twentieth position by March 2010.

“I propose the creation of an audience rating system more suited to the unique situation of our country,” Li Xiaofeng said [in 2009].

That year, Chongqing Satellite TV made great efforts to build [its] “China Red” (中国红) [branding]. This was evidenced not just in its Spring Festival Gala, its cultural variety shows and its [Party] classic dramas, but also in programs like “Sing/Read/Speak/Convey” (唱读讲传), [a shortening of "singing red, reading the [Party] classics, telling [Party] stories and passing along [Party] maxims”] . . .

. . .

[Frontpage photo by espensorvik available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

5 Comments to “Inside Chongqing’s red TV revolution”

  1. King Tubby says:

    Whether this red propaganda media/workplace takeover is cast aside after 2012 is not so important . By then Bo will have his personal and extensive surveillance system in place.

    “The mega-city of Chongqing in southwest China plans to build a $2.6 billion security system that will be one of the world’s largest with 500,000 surveillance cameras (with a centralised feed), state media have said”.

    For more on this centralised system of panopticism;
    http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hJkDNmTWxi-exz2kkhIoUZDuPYbw?docId=CNG.94f20013cdd393d22cb9d0a563a113f9.8d1

    Individuals never know when they are being observed, so they adjust their physical behaviour accordingly a la D @ P Foucault. “The soul is the effect and instrument of political anatomy; the soul is the prison of the body”.

    So you had better sing out with enthusiasm, or else!!!

    Unlike the power players in Beijing who get the flack, this guy is on a very modern roll in his very own dark side fiefdom.

  2. doofle says:

    “Telling China’s stories, humanizing the world”

  3. Li Xiaofeng illustrates eloquently how “exceptionalism” is so often used as a rhetorical ploy (by the US, as well as China) to cover for mistakes and problems.

    I wonder if the central government will decide that the “solution” to this problem of low ratings at CQTV is to make all the other TV stations in China unpopular as well, thereby pushing consumers towards internet content and (most likely) foreign content.

    Alternatively, any bets on whether this “red song/red propaganda” BS peters out after the 2012 leadership shuffle?

  4. Adam says:

    Statistics with Chinese characteristics

  5. King Tubby says:

    “Audience ratings are the root of all evil in our country’s television sector. It is a statistical technique that entirely excludes the [cultural] elite from the investigative sample.”

    “I propose the creation of an audience rating system more suited to the unique situation of our country,” Li Xiaofeng said [in 2009].

    Did I actually read this?
    The beyond denial department.

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