BROOKE GLADSTONE: If covering the Chinese Communist Party change of leadership is tough for Western media outlets, consider the task confronting China Central Television, the country's sole national network. CTV has served as the Party’s mouthpiece 1958 and, though it lacks the brand recognition of CNN, it has the world's greatest reach, with more than 1.2 billion viewers worldwide. Ying Zhu, a professor of media culture at the City University of New York, has written a new book on the little understood network called, “Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television.” She says its coverage is so bland, even government bureaucrats can't stand to watch it. Instead, the TVs at the Central Committee’s Beijing compound are reportedly tuned to Phoenix, an independent Hong Kong-based channel available to China's urban elites. And yet, Ying Zhu was stunned in more ways than one when she felt the earth shake on a visit to Beijing in May, 2008. It seems the Szechuan province earthquake had also shaken up CCTV.
YING ZHU: Initially, it was very frank and very fast reporting. The coverage was very impressive, just as if you were watching a report from BBC. This is actually minutes after the earthquake hit, CCTV was on the ground reporting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s must have been shocking, given how much effort there was to cover up the SARS epidemic.
YING ZHU: Absolutely. It used to be a – sort of a habitual cover-up of major natural disasters. But you cannot possibly cover up earthquake where Internet is functioning and globalization is taking over. And the other thing that provided this kind of window of opportunity for CCTV was initially the Party regulators were so stunned, they failed to react. For a while, there was no Party directive as to how to act, so people just basically acted on their instinct: I have to go chase the news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But later, when the investigations turned to the shoddy schools the needless sacrifice of thousands of lives because of poor construction, than what happened?
YING ZHU: The euphoria is short lived. The Party’s propaganda czar, Li Changchun, went to CCTV a few days after the reporting, encouraging the report of the disaster from a certain angle, positive enforcement. On the night of his visit, CCTV added a new segment called, “Heroes in Disaster.” It started to focus on the government-led disaster relief effort.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So a gradual return to business as usual?
YING ZHU: Business as usual, and also you point out that the shoddy school construction, it was not covered from the perspective of corruption and power abuse.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how does the government exercise control over CCTV's content? Is it active or is there an unstated agreement among the producers?
YING ZHU: Increasingly, control is carried out in a form of self-censorship because over time they have loosened this control but, nevertheless, there are consequences if you don’t conform to certain perceived regulations or rules.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You lose your job?
YING ZHU: You lose your job. It’s a bread-and-butter issue. Therefore, you have a generation of young professionals who are very good at intuiting what is permissible, what is not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So CCTV is a strange animal. It's both the Chinese government's mouthpiece and a for-profit company with operational autonomy. So it has to make money. At the same time it has to stay ideologically pure.
YING ZHU: That’s very interesting though because over the years the state and the market have formed an alliance to advance the kind of wholesome television program, ideologically inoffensive, yet commercially viable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One CCTV channel took as its model, heaven help us, The Apprentice.”
YING ZHU: Well, CCTV has ripped off a lot of the Western formats. And the local station too, Hunan Satellite Television, for instance, came up with a singing competition show. Another came up with a dating show. It’s called “If You Are the One.“
They have provocatively dressed a young woman, parading on the stage. What they’re looking for is no longer love or relationship but affluence.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is “The Bachelor.“
YING ZHU: [LAUGHS] Exactly, on Chinese native soil. [LAUGHING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I thought it was really interesting that officials will leak important stories to CCTV, in order to maintain its primacy as a source of news.
YING ZHU: That's right because it is in the best interest of its [LAUGHS] regulators to protect CCTV’s monopoly. It also banned certain local programming, for instance, the programming that heavily utilized the dialects. These programs are banned because these programs gave the local stations a leg up.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So they just crashed local competitors.
YING ZHU: That’s right, but the local broadcasters fought back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And succeeded, at least in some places?
YING ZHU: To a certain extent.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Younger Internet-savvy critics of CCTV have called it Hee-Hee TV, as in ha-ha-ha?
YING ZHU: That’s right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And these people are getting their news from the Internet. Isn't the number projected to reach 445 million?
YING ZHU: Right, by the end of this year. That's the projection.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. You’ve been living and working in New York for a very long time, but you did a lot of on-the-ground research in China for your book, and what you sought was, in anthropological terms, a thick description.
YING ZHU: It basically means that you live with the subject of study. You know, I really hate to use “the subject of study.” These are not my subjects of study. These are really my colleagues, in a sense. And, you know, I, I feel a real sense of a kinship with them. It doesn’t matter whether they work under the authoritarian state or not. And so, I have a great admiration for these people who try so hard [LAUGHS] to deliver what is, you know, basically impossible. I came away with less of a cynicism, you know. I became less judgmental. You know, occasionally I feel that there is a, a sort of hypocrisy on my part, all right? And I can go in and stir up a little trouble, and I leave. I depart and I, Igo back to my Upper East Side Manhattan and sip a cocktail, but people are stuck there, and that’s their livelihood, and I think they deserve some credit. They are essentially the desperados of news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
YING ZHU: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ying Zhu is the chair of the Department of Media Culture at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island, and she's the author of “Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television.”