3 Lessons France can offer China about government-run media
Both China and France share a common frustration with the international media and that their country’s “story” is not being accurately conveyed via the CNNs, BBCs and Al Jazeeras of the world. After years of bitterly complaining about the injustices of international (read Western) news reporting, they both came to same conclusion: “if you can’t beat ’em join ’em.” In December 2006, the French-government launched France24, its tri-lingual (French, Arabic and English) 24-hour news service distributed around the world via satellite and on the internet. Similarly, the 2010 launch of CNC World marks China’s third attempt to persuade english language audiences around the world to “see the world through a Chinese perspective.” The other two networks, CCTV 9 (now re-branded “CCTV International”) and Blue Ocean Network (BON Live) are both on-air but have had little-to-no impact among its target demographic of english-speakers around the world. In contrast to the various Chinese international TV networks now available globally, France24 appears to be gaining considerable traction with audiences in the US and Africa among other regions.
China’s media leaders may want to consider the French approach with France24 if they want to grow audience share with their own media properties:
1. Editorial autonomy + Higher Content Legitimacy = Audience Loyalty
It is hard to tell if online users and TV viewers of France24 clearly understand that they are consuming a media property owned and operated by the French government. Just as viewers of Al Jazeera may not be fully aware of the Qatari government’s backing of that network. What’s important here is that both France24 and Al Jazeera afford their editorial staff considerable editorial autonomy in determining the news. I can speak from personal experience (full disclosure: I am currently a freelance journalist at France24’s english language online service) to attest that there is never any concern among the editorial staff about government censorship or oversight of any kind. Conversely, the pressure from management is to produce the highest quality news comparable to the standards of any of the international newsrooms I have worked in, including CNN, CNBC Asia and the Associated Press among others. Consider this example from July 14, 2010, France’s national holiday. In an effort to rebuild relations with its former African colonies, the French government invited those states celebrating 50 years of independence to have a delegation of military representatives march in the grand Bastille Day parade up the Champs Elysees. In China, such national day festivities would be greeted with patriotic enthusiasm by official media organs, but not so in France.
The Chinese are making it much harder than it needs to be for international viewers to access their content online.
Both the TV and online editors at France24 led with stories of accusations from a federation of international human rights groups that war criminals may be among those marching in the parade. The headline (left) led the coverage for most of the day and never was there a concern that France24 was embarrassing France’s leaders or the state itself. Instead, the story generated above-average traffic online.
The lesson here for China’s own media entities is that by giving experienced media producers greater autonomy to report a story, even if it may be critical of China, will ultimately improve the content’s legitimacy among its target audiences and thus lead to increased user loyalty. I fully understand how difficult it would be for some within the Propaganda Ministry, and even in the State Council, to loosen the reigns of media control. However, it should be considered essential if the ultimate objective is to persuade sophisticated international media consumers to divert themselves from rival websites and TV channels to CNC World, BON Live or CCTV International.
2. Make it Easy to Watch and Access the Content
When CNC World debuted in July 2010, I rushed to find the live stream online the very first day it went on the air. It went without saying that CNC would have a live-stream, or even on-demand video available, considering the importance the government had placed on reaching out to international viewers like myself. Yet after four attempts using three computers on two platforms, I have still not been able to access the CNC World live stream. CNC World is making it much more difficult than it needs to be for viewers to access their content online. Here are a few suggestions on how the network can improve its usability to make it significantly easier for viewers, such as myself, to watch CNC World over the internet:
A. Domain Name: select an easy to remember URL. http://www.xhstv.com is NOT a good domain name for an international audience. Now, as a Chinese speaker, I understand that XHS stands for 新华社, the average American viewer will not.
B. Make it Mac Compatible: No, in fact, make it platform agnostic. Currently, CNC World can only be viewed on PCs which eliminates tens of millions of prospective viewers who use Apple’s products. This is critical in both the United States and Europe.
C. No Plug-ins!: This is a massive mistake on the part of Xinhua. First of all, web users in the U.S. and Europe are accustomed to watching online video using any of the established methods ranging from Flash to HTML5. The era of downloading additional software applications to run video ended about five years. Secondly, Western internet users will NEVER download a plug-in prompted by text written in Chinese! This is a screen grab of the prompt to download the program “UUSEE” to watch CNC World. To the vast majority of non-Chinese speaking Westerners, this looks extremely ominous.
D. Do not use Chinese characters: Even if a user in the U.S. or Europe wanted to download the UUSEE plug-in, there is a very good chance that s/he would not be able to because many of the anti-virus programs block Chinese language applications. This is even more so on corporate networks that often have much stricter security measures than most home users. To avoid this restrictions, the English-language streaming site should be entirely in English with no Chinese language prompts for plug in requirements or any Chinese-character metadata that will trigger the security programs to block the site.
3. Quality Counts
Just as China is not a native-English speaking country, France faces a similar challenge in how it staffs its English language media channels. Unlike most of China’s multilingual media outlets, France24’s english and Arabic services are staffed by native speakers. In China, by contrast, CCTV9, China Radio International and other channels are often staffed with Chinese employees whose english skills are quite strong relative to other mainland Chinese however nowhere near international broadcast standards. Subsequently, there are significantly higher levels of on air and online mistakes that are often directly associated with language abilities. In an extremely competitive news markets, these kinds of mistakes are unacceptable as it undermines the credibility of the product and encourages consumers to seek elsewhere for similar information. There is ample evidence of poor language and copy editing skills of China’s international media editors. On three separate occasions over the course of a single week, the home page of CNTV (left) featured prominent spelling errors and template layout mistakes that, once again, indicate China’s media products are just not competing at the same level as French and other international media outlets.