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CCTV News Edges Toward Reform
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China Central Television's (CCTV) primetime national news program "Xinwen Lianbo," or News Broadcast, assigned two new anchorpersons on June 5. This move, welcomed across the country, could be an indication that China's biggest television station is edging toward change, trying to win back viewers who were "poached" by smaller but seemingly more exciting and progressive provincial and private stations.

Kang Hui and Li Zimeng are the youngest anchors ever to appear on the program, with an average viewership of over 70 million. More significant, it is the first time in 17 years that CCTV has fielded new faces to present the news.

However, insiders weren't too fazed by the changes. According to a CCTV official who spoke anonymously to Nanfang Weekend on June 15, the changes were part of a "usual post shifting." Luo Jing, an anchorman who hosted the program for 17 years, didn't think there was anything surprising about the change either.

The fact that News Broadcast has made the news begs the question: Why do we care?

The answer lies in the fact that the program, which has been broadcasting at 7 PM every evening for the last 30 years, is an almost accurate reflection of Chinese politics.

This July 1 is a special day for two reasons. One, it marks the 85th anniversary of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Two, it also represents 30 years of News Broadcast. On July 1, 1976, a trial edition of News Broadcast, previously known as "National Television News Broadcast," was aired. On New Year's Day 1978, News Broadcast was officially launched.

From its inception, News Broadcast was designed to broadcast breaking news. In 1980, its reports focused on major events including the trials of Lin Biao -- accused of treason -- and Jiang Qing -- the late Chairman Mao Zedong's wife who was one of the infamous "Gang of Four." This was the first time that millions across China watched key political events unfold on television.

In 1982, the central government gave News Broadcast exclusive authorization to report important news from the session of the 12th National Congress of the CPC a day earlier than other media. From that moment on, the political function and image of News Broadcast were established.

To this day, News Broadcast continues to abide by the principle to "publicize Party and governments' voices and broadcast big events around the world."

"CCTV is the only television station qualified to run this program," said Professor Lei Yuejie, the dean of the Department of TV and News at Communication University of China.

Between 7 and 7:30 PM every evening, most other TV stations in China televise News Broadcast; even Hong Kong's Phoenix TV broadcasts programs other than the news so as not to compete with News Broadcast.

News Broadcast has become something of an institution with an established program style and arrangement. As far as program layout is concerned, the activities of the Party and its leaders always form the headlines. That is followed by 25 minutes of domestic news and five minutes of international news.

Its signature tune hasn't changed since March 1988, so much so that its composer Meng Weidong is also known as "the man whose music you hear every day."

Luo Jing revealed that he once wanted to change his hairstyle, but his request was rejected by the head of CCTV.

"The broadcasting style of News Broadcast follows that set by the previous generation of announcers like Qi Yue and Xia Qing at Chinese People's Broadcasting Station," said Zhao Zhongxiang, one of the first anchorpersons of News Broadcast. He summarized its style as "clear and rich in tone," "majestic" and "precise."   

While style and layout are important, a news program isn't a news program without content.

In 2002, Professor Zhou Xiaopu from the Journalism School of Renmin University of China led a research team in the study of News Broadcast's content. They found that 41.6 percent of the news was about politics, taking up over 50 percent of total programming time.

"Viewers acknowledge that it is a serious news program with a finger on the pulse of China's political life. And they've grown accustomed to it over the last 30 years," Prof. Lei said. "Even if they don't read the newspapers, they can find out what's going on in Chinese politics."

"News Broadcast is a mirror, a weatherglass for China's political life," he added.

News Broadcast's special status is one reason why local government officials pay such close attention to it. A former journalist for News Broadcast who asked not to be named told Nanfang Weekend that the program is a publicity tool for local governments to broadcast their achievements. "Everyone watches News Broadcast, even central government leaders."

Private enterprises, too, understand the importance of News Broadcast and often pay large amounts of money for the 15-second advertising slot immediately after the news. In 2005, Proctor & Gamble reportedly paid 385 million yuan (US$48 million) for the prime block.

According to statistics provided by CSM Media Research, daily viewership from January to May this year was an average 5.6 percent of all households with TVs in China, which equates to 72.8 million people. As impressive as these figures might be, they are still far less than they were in the 1980s.

"News Broadcast's household ratings were always above 50 percent in the 1980s, and even peaked at 58 percent once," according to Prof. Zhou.
The decline can possibly be attributed to increased competition, particularly from Hong Kong's Phoenix TV and Shanghai's Dragon TV. Over the last two decades or so, they've developed their own news programs that are totally different from News Broadcast in terms of presenting style and content. Announcers are less formal in their tone and language, and programs typically include in-depth analyses of major current affairs.

Faced with a ratings challenge, CCTV officials realized that they couldn't sit idly by.

"Many suggestions were put forward at seminars. For example, the program was called to 'get close to the common people' and 'report more international news'," Prof. Lei said.

Some changes were indeed made in the 1980s. To his recollection, the "boldest moment" was on January 29, 1986 when the American space shuttle "Challenger" tragedy made headlines.

"It was the first and last time in history that central government leaders got no headline report," he said. "I thought that News Broadcast would thereafter arrange the news according to newsworthiness. However, this wasn't approved by the executive department. Even the 9/11 terrorist attacks didn't make headline news."

Anchors tried to introduce little changes, too, by using a more casual presenting style. But they are constrained by formal texts prepared by Xinhua News Agency.

In 2005, News Broadcast had another crack at reform, this time by introducing more stories relating to the lives of the common people.

"News Broadcast is trying its best to report interesting stories, but because political news still dominate its content, ratings have not improved dramatically," Prof. Zhou said.

Zhan Jiang, the president of the School of Journalism and Communication at China Youth University for Political Sciences, agreed: "Content comes before form. What News Broadcast should change is its content."

On June 1, the final touches to the updating of CCTV's news channel were made. According to Liang Xiaotao, director of CCTV's news center: "The most important goal is to let people be willing to watch CCTV's news programs."

Whether or not new anchors are enough to achieve that remains to be seen.

(China.org.cn by Zhang Rui, June 19, 2006)

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