The New New New Chinese TV Network

xinhua CNC imageHere we go again… yet again… a new Chinese international television network launches with great fanfare amid high expectations that this time, finally, China’s story will finally get a fair airing in the global marketplace.   After five months broadcasting in Mandarin, the all new China News Network Corporation debuted its English service this week. Admittedly, I have not seen the new service, either in Chinese or English, but I do approach this venture with the same skepticism I have had for the past ten years of other similar Chinese endeavors.  The Chinese are motivated by what they consider to be the unfair treatment they receive in the international media, particularly among the major global networks like CNN, the BBC and others.  Following the success of Al Jazeera in both Arabic and English, Beijing now has imperial media ambitions of its own to help promote its worldview and grab a larger share of the world’s television news audience.

A Bit of Background

First, it was CCTV9.  The ugly, English speaking cousin of CCTV that got a nice facelift a few years ago courtesy of Rupert Murdoch.  News Corp. advisors convinced CCTV9’s management to invest in new sets, a snazzy graphics package and replace the dour looking Chinese anchors with cctv09attractive Australians, Africans and other non-Chinese.   CCTV then leveraged its considerable political muscle to expand the network’s global distribution.  In the United States alone, CCTV9’s expanded distribution footprint is nothing short of amazing.   The channel is available on pretty much every major cable and satellite platform from DirecTV to Time Warner Cable.  You can also get your fill of watching Da Shan over the air as CCTV9 is making inroads in regional markets through digital terrestrial television stations as well.  Simply put, CCTV9’s distribution is phenomenal.  Nonetheless, CCTV9 is a tragic case study in how distribution alone is not enough.  I have yet to meet an American television viewer not affiliated with China who has ever heard of CCTV9, much less watched it, even though the channel is right there on their on screen TV guide.

bon liveLast year, the Chinese doubled-down on their English language TV investments with the launch of Blue Oceans Network, or BON Live.  Sensitive to the reaction of many international viewers that CCTV9 was simply an extension of the parent channel’s heavily censored content, the new BON brands itself as an “independent network” that produces “objective English language content for the Western world.”   While much of the content has that same “cable access” semi-professional feel to it that is so common on CCTV9, the difference with BON is that it is positioning itself as a Western channel designed exclusively for Western audiences.  That means there are few, if any, Chinese hosts and there is a pretense of independence from the government’s various media censors.

And now… CNC

That China feels the need to launch yet another network is indicative that its prior attempts have not fulfilled the government’s media objectives.  Beijing clearly perceives an injustice is being done by the international media in how it is perceived globally and the best solution is to follow the lead of the French (France24), the Russians (Russia Today) and Qatar (Al Jazeera) by deploying its own television platform to tell its story.   There is little, if any, evidence that suggests CNC will be any more successful than CCTV9 and BON Live in persuading the outside world of China’s positions on critical issues where it comes under such intense scrutiny by the international community.  On the key issues of human rights, Tibet, Taiwan and certain aspects of China’s relationship with the United States, China’s official government media simply lacks the necessary editorial credibility to be taken seriously as an impartial source of news.

Why Al Jazeera is Different

Beijing’s media leaders no doubt look to Al Jazeera as an example of how a state-funded media enterprise can have great effect in swaying public opinion.  Unfortunately for China, Al Jazeera is unique in many ways that do not benefit Beijing.   The key difference between China’s media ventures and Al Jazeera is the level of editorial independence the Qatari government affords the network’s management.  Doha provides Al Jazeera with seemingly endless resources to do pursue stories as it pleases, even if that complicates Qatar’s foreign relations.  Qatar is a staunch ally of the United States, even housing one of the largest American military bases in the Persian Gulf, yet permits Al Jazeera to feature guests and carry and editorial narrative that is constantly critical of American policies in the Gulf and towards the Arab/Muslim world at large.  It is hard to envision China permitting such editorial latitude with CNC’s editors.  Furthermore, Al Jazeera’s editorial management, both in Washington at Al Jazeera English and in Doha with its Arabic language service, is comprised of a journalists from around the world.   When Al Jazeera English launched several years ago, it cherry picked top editorial staff from the world’s leading news organizations with the offer of editorial independence.  While the full potential of that promise has predictably fallen short on some levels, overall that editorial freedom is also difficult to envision in Beijing where no such tradition exists.

What China Should Do…

There is a tremendous opportunity out there for a globally focused China-based television network that is essentially an english-language version of Phoenix TV News.  Instead of relying on its old ways of producing media, here’s what China should do:

  • Engage the international media in a meaningful debate on the issues by making its government leaders more accessible to the English language media. It took years for the U.S. government to learn this lesson.  Initially, Washington avoided Al Jazeera, prohibiting its officials to appear on the network.  It then realized that by leaving a vacuum in the airspace, it allowed more time for critics to attack the administration for its Mid East policies.  Now, Arabic speaking American diplomats are regular guests on Al Jazeera.  China should follow suit by making media training in English mandatory for certain high level officials and follow the example of Beijing’s top diplomat on Africa Affairs, Liu Guijin, who appears regularly on international television to articulate China’s position and rebuff the government’s critics.
  • Ease restrictions on China-based foreign correspondents to travel and access senior officials. I speak with firsthand experience here in how difficult it is to get officials in Beijing to talk on the record, or better yet on camera.  It takes days, even weeks, to get officials to agree to an interview and when they do it’s often accompanied by a long list of restrictions.  By making their officials more accessible to the foreign press corps and allowing journalists to form meaningful relationships with bureaucrats, they will find that the coverage will soften considerably.  The best example of this is in the United States where an extremely close relationship exists between the government and the media and more often than not, that close relationship often benefits the government significantly more than the media.
  • Attract the best international journalists from around the world as Al Jazeera did.  To date, the quality of journalist at China’s english language networks is extremely green.  Largely, CCTV9 and BON Live, along with the China Daily and other similar outlets, are populated by journalists who are either too green to get jobs elsewhere or can’t find jobs elsewhere in the global media.  Instead, the Chinese should recruit from CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and other established networks who have the experience to take China’s television programs to a much more sophisticated level.  Here’s the hard the part though: these experienced journalists will only come if they have assurances that they can truly tell the story as it is.  CNC’s management will have to include some international personnel and they will have to allow a greater degree of editorial freedom than they are accustomed.

In 2009 I was approached by a Hong Kong-based executive recruiter to join BON Live.  At the time, I was the Vice President of editorial affairs at the largest Chinese TV station in North America and I would have no doubt been a good fit for an endeavor like BON Live.  However, when I inquired about the degree of editorial control I would have over the programs I would manage, it was made very clear to me that I would be required to follow the guidance handed down from management on sensitive issues (those “sensitive issues” were not articulated however I knew exactly what they were: Taiwan/Tibet/June 4/etc…).  If China wants to really be taken seriously in the international TV marketplace, it will eventually have to soften those restrictions to allow for journalists with my level of experience to help them tell their very compelling story.

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2 Responses to “The New New New Chinese TV Network”

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  2. […] than ever to expand China’s media influence beyond its borders through acquisition and the launch of new english language television networks to portray China accurately and fairly.  In addition to feeling both misunderstood and […]

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