China's first TV station, Beijing Television, began broadcasting on May 1, 1958. Within two years, dozens of stations were set up in major cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou. Most stations had to rely on using planes, trains, or cars to send films and tapes from one to another.

The first setback for Chinese television came in early 1960 when the former Soviet Union withdrew economic aid from China. Many TV stations were closed and the number was reduced from 23 to 5. Then came the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), during which television's functions became a single one: to publicize, explain, and express "class struggles." Antiimperialism, anti-revisionism, and anti-capitalism policies were erected for fulfilling the task of class struggle. Beijing Television's regular telecasting came to a halt on January 1967. Local stations followed its lead. It was not until the early 1970s that television development gradually became normal.

In the reform period starting from the late 1970s, television became the most rapidly growing and advanced medium. On May 1, 1978, Beijing Television changed to China Central Television (CCTV) as the country's only national network with the world's largest audience. In 1994 the country had near 700 stations, with one national, 30 provincial, 300 regional, and 350 local. A total of 220 channels are broadcasting nationwide. The change in TV set ownership is among the fastest in the world's television history. By 1993 China had 230 million TV sets, becoming the nation with the most TV sets in the world. Statistically, every Chinese family now owns a TV set. For color TV sets, in 1978 every 100 urban families had only 0.59 color set. The number increased 100 times during the 1980s, rising to 59.04 sets in every 100 urban families. The estimated viewership in 1994 was about 80% of the population, nearly 900 million. They comprised 83% of urban population and 33% of rural population. Television has become the most important medium in people's daily life. About 54% of the people watched TV every day, while 32% read a newspaper and 35% listened to the radio every day.

The growth in TV stations, TV set ownership, and TV audience, demonstrate the extraordinary diffusion of television throughout China. From 1958 to 1994, stations grew in number from two to 683. Set ownership increased from a few thousand to 260 million between 1960 and 1994. And from 1975 to 1994 viewers increased from 18 million to 900 million.

Broadcasting technology also developed quickly. By 1990, 90% of the transmission facilities were manufactured domestically. In the 1960s only 3,000 to 5,000 TV sets were produced annually, a tiny figure compared to a population of seven million at the time. In the 1980s, 50-odd color TV enterprises with nearly 1,000 production lines were in operation. From 1978 to 1992 the output of TV sets increased 55.4 times, leaping from seventh to top place in the world, with the biggest output of black and white television sets and third in color-set production.

Structure and System

The only television allowed in China is state owned. No private television ownership is allowed, and no foreign television ownership is permitted. Receiving foreign TV programs via satellite is prohibited. For many years television was financed by the government. There are no license fees or direct charge for television. Television advertising did not exist until the economic reform started in the late 1970s.

Media theories undergirding the organization and uses of Chinese television flow directly from Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Mao Zedong, the founder and late chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, embellished Lenin's concept of media control and stressed that media must be run by the Party and become the Party's "loyal eyes, ears, and tongue." The Party requires that "Broadcasting must keep in line with the Party voluntarily, and serve the main Party objectives of the time."

Television's central task is to serve as the mouthpiece of the leadership, and is regarded as both a political institution and an ideological apparatus. It is used, to the greatest possible extent, by the Party and state command to impose ideological hegemony on the society. It is the Party and government that set the tone of propaganda for television. Although TV stations transmit news, deliver government orders or decrees, provide education and enrich the people's cultural life, in the past decades television was mainly used by the Party and state to popularize policies and directions and motivate the masses in the construction of communism.

A tight control system was maintained to make television function effectively. The Party is concurrently the owner, the manager, and the practitioner of television. Television is under the direct leadership and control of the Party and run by the government. All stations are under the dual jurisdiction of the Party's Central Propaganda Department and the government's Ministry of Radio, Film and Television. The Party's Propaganda Department is under the supervision of the Secretariat and the Political Bureau of the Party's Central Committee. Local supervision comes from the various provincial, municipal, and local Party propaganda departments and the provincial or municipal broadcasting administrative bureaus. The Propaganda Departments set media policies, determine programming content and themes, and issue operational directives. Technological, regulatory and administrative affairs are generally the concern of the government. As a political organ of the Party, virtually no independence of media is envisioned. Open debate on ideology is not allowed, nor is media criticism of the Party, government and high ranking officials, policies and affairs. The self-imposed censorship has long and extensively been used. Every individual in the media circle knows well what he or she can do or cannot do. While routine material does not require approval from Party authorities, important editorials, news stories and sensitive programs all require prior endorsement by the Party authorities.

Programming and Production

Television programs consist of four categories: news (15%), entertainment (50%), feature and service (10%), and education (15%).

Although entertainment occupied the most hours, before the reform there were not many real entertainment programs. The majority were old films, with occasional live broadcast of operas. Newscasts were mostly what the official People's Daily reported. Production capability was low, equipment and facilities were simple, broadcasting hours and transmitting scales were limited and usually lasted three hours daily. Between 1958 and 1977 only 74 TV plays were produced.

Television has developed rapidly since the reform. Taboos were eliminated, restrictions lifted, and bold breakthroughs made. Both domestic and foreign news coverage have expanded. News on the frustration of economic reform, opinions from audience, coverage of disaster, crime reports and human interest stories were seen on a daily basis. A number of "firsts" have been tried, such as market information programs, sensitive topics, live telecasts of the Party's congress, and VIP interviews. In 1980 CCTV signed an agreement with Visnews and UPITV to receive international news stories via satellite. Npw CCTV also receives international news stories from Asiavision, World TV News, and CNN.

Entertainment in the form of soap operas, traditional operas, and foreign feature films have become routine. In 1986 CCTV opened an English-language channel to serve foreigners in China. A dozen municipal and provincial stations now also have their English channels.

Education programs were expanded to college courses offered by TV universities. More than 5,000 educational ground receiving terminals were installed, allowing one million college students to study at home. In 20 years, five million people received continuing education through TV networks and 20 million farmers learned practical farming techniques in this way. Currently, two million students get their education or training via TV, including 1.2 million primary and middle school teachers. Service programs now range from commodity advertising, public announcement, weather and traffic reports, to date and stock information.

Production capacity has also been remarkably enhanced since the reform. In 1993 CCTV's news service increased to 11 programs per day, compared to only three before. During the 1960s and 1970s fewer than a dozen TV plays were made annually. In 1990 the number jumped to 1,500. In 1994 domestically produced TV plays reached 5,000. Broadcasting hours increased impressively as well. In an average week of 1980, 2,018 hours of programs were broadcast nationwide. The number went up to 7,698 in 1985 and 22,298 in 1990, a 3.5-fold increase in five years and an 11-fold expansion in ten years. Nationwide, television now broadcasts 30,000 hours per week. On the year basis, 150,000-hour programs are produced domestically.


Openness in Television

An epochal move towards openness in television has been made in the reform period. It started in economic and technological aspects, but soon was expanded to political and cultural aspects as well.

The first token of openness in television is the changes in programming importation. Importation before the reform was quantitatively limited and politically and ideologically oriented. For 20 years, only the national network was authorized to import programs under tight control and restrictions. Programs were imported almost exclusively from socialist countries, and the content concentrated on the Soviet Revolution and their economic progress. Few programs were imported from the West and were restricted to those which exemplified that "socialism is promising, capitalism is hopeless."

In the late 1970s the ban was lifted. In 1986 U.S. Lorimar Productions signed a contract with Shanghai Television, providing 7,500 hours of American shows. Today, with some restrictions, central, regional, and local television stations are all looking to other countries as a source of programs. In the early 1970s imported programming occupied only less than one percent of the total programming. In 1982 the number jumped to eight percent. In 1994 it became 15%.

The second token of openness in television is the organizing of TV festivals. In 1986, STV held China's first international TV festival. Around 40 TV companies from 15 countries attended the festival. In 1994 more than 300 companies from 38 countries were present a the 5th Shanghai TV Festival, which was recognized as the largest TV festival ever in Asia. Another TV festival also has been held every two years in Sichuan Province since 1990, providing one international TV festival in China every year. At the program market of the 1993 Sichuan TV festival, 1,723 TV serials were imported and 213 exported.

The third token of openness is the resurrection of advertising on television. Advertising was halted for three decades following the Party ascent to power in 1949. Over the last 15 years, economic and political reforms have revived the importance of the market forces and the power of advertising. Both domestic and foreign advertising have been resurrected. The majority of foreign programs were imported on barter agreements. In 1986 the figure went up to 115 million yuan, representing a 30-fold growth. In the 1980s, business increased at an annual rate of 50 to 60%, and reached 561 million yuan in 1990. In 1992 the sale of television advertising jumped to 2,050 million, accounting for over 30% of the country's total advertising revenue.

In recent years television has become the most commercialized and market oriented medium and attracted most advertising investment from both domestic and foreign clients. Presently, a large proportion of programming revenue ranging from 40% to 70% is being funded by advertising and other trade activities. Recently, a fully commercialized television service, Oriental Television, the first of its kind in China, was established in Shanghai. Its operation is stripping away all state financial support . The greater revenues from this source have not only lessened the government's control on finance, but also lessened its control on programming.

New Policies

The drastic changes in television may be attributed to the Party's new policies, including the modernization policy, decentralization policy, and relaxation and pluralism policy.

Under the modernization policy, the authorities have allocated large appropriations to television industry. In 1967, the total investment in television was 20 million Chinese yuan, but in 1977 the budget was 50 million. In 1980 the expenditure on rose to 670 million yuan. In 1985, the number reached to 1,780 million yuan. In 1989, the number became three billion. Entering the 1990s, the investment has exceeded five billion yuan annually.

The decentralization policy entitled "four-level development and management of radio and television services" was adopted in the early 1980s. The "four level" refer to the country's system of divided administration. With the central authority at the top, the other three levels are regions (30), local cities (about 450), and counties (approximately 1,900). This policy aimed particularly at extending television into rural areas and inland provinces. Within ten years a widely-penetrated television system was formulated. In the meantime, the number of relay stations grew to 10,000 with a 100-fold increase.

Television has been playing an increasingly important role in the people's leisure time. The decades-long preview system has been loosened. Except for some politically sensitive topics, most programs no longer need to be previewed by the authorities. The diversification and pluralism of programming has grown with passage of the reform years.

Satellite Broadcasting and Cable Service

Efforts were made to develop broadcasting satellites to increase the penetration of television and to improve the quality of transmission. Along with terrestrial broadcasting China launched its first telecommunications satellite in 1970. In 1972 the first ground satellite-reception station was set up to assist in domestic and international program exchanges. During the 1980s, a total of five telecommunications and broadcasting satellites were launched, which made it possible to transmit television and radio programs from Beijing to all parts of the country. In 1992 CCTV opened its fourth channel via satellite, covering Hong Kong and Taiwan as well as the whole mainland. Now, 12 channels are transmitted via satellite. With more than 50,000 ground satellite receiving stations, television broadcasting reaches 81.3% of the population.

In 1991 China started cable television. In the past three years 15,000-odd cable TV stations have emerged, with a total subscription of 25 million households. The largest cable TV station is Shanghai Cable TV Station (SCTV) with its coverage of 1.2 million terminal users, making this system the biggest cable TV network in the world. SCTV is the country's first cable TV station to adopt the advanced techniques of combined transmission through optical and power cables. It has 12 channels with 13 sets of programs specialized in entertainment, economic information, news, sports, music, education, public service, and other services.

-Junhao Hong


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