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Television Informs, Entertains Farmers
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Twenty years ago, a black-and-white television receiving grainy images was enough to make any rural Chinese home the center of an evening's entertainment in a land where TV was rare and channels even rarer.

Today that is nothing more than a memory, with a feast of television programs available to even the remotest islands and valleys.

"In the past I only used to get one or two channels and the image was often blurry, but now I can get more than 40 channels and the picture is so clear and stable," said Si Zhibin, a villager in Yingshan County, Sichuan Province in southwest China.

The 658 villages in the mountainous county had just 20,000 TV viewers before 2000.

With such limited access to programs, many rural residents had little idea what was going on outside their community.

All that has changed, with every village in the county now enjoying access to cable TV.

Si, whose village was hooked up to cable TV at the end of last year, said that watching news and drama programs is now an essential part of his daily life. "It feels great," he said.

Si's experience epitomizes the development of TV across the nation. In 1998, the central government launched the Cuncuntong Project, which aims to give all villages access to radio and TV. At the time, it was estimated about 148 million people in 680,000 villages were not covered by radio and TV signals.

Both the central government and local authorities had ploughed 3.44 billion yuan (US$428 million) into the project by the end of last year, according to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT). This huge investment improved the TV broadcasting coverage rate to 95.8 percent from 87 percent in 1997.

"The goal of radio and TV services is to meet people's increasing cultural demands," said SARFT spokesman Zhu Hong.

He said the government would continue to invest to improve news, children's, rural and ethnic minorities' programming, while also developing digital TV and making efforts to ensure that radio and TV signals cover the entire country.

SARFT Vice Minister Zhang Haitao recently confirmed that the long-awaited terrestrial digital TV broadcasting standard is due to be released this year, which will promote the digitalization of TV in China.

He said a draft of the digital TV terrestrial broadcasting standard had been submitted to the National Radio, Film and Television Standardization Commission. It will then go to the Standardization Administration of China to become a national standard. He added that China will also draft standards on mobile telephony, Internet Protocol TV (IPTV) and satellite broadcasting.

Digital TV can be received from satellite, cable and terrestrial broadcasts. But the latter takes the lion's share when it comes to Chinese TV viewers, making the terrestrial standard the most important one for the nation. Therefore, China has decided to develop its own terrestrial TV standard, based on the European standard but tailored to meet local requirements.

The number of households capable of receiving digital TV rose from one million in 2004 to 4.13 million in 2005, according to SARFT.

"The experience of many other countries indicated that citizens' cultural and entertainment spending rises sharply when per capita GDP surpasses US$1,000," said Pan Li, a professor at the Communication University of China.

China's per capita GDP exceeded US$1,000 in 2003 and reached US$1,269 in 2004. Pan remarked that this situation offers massive potential in terms of the development of TV services.

Ensuring that all citizens can benefit from the rapid development of TV services has become a major issue for the government.

One of the major tasks outlined in the 11th Five-year Guidelines (2006-10), which was approved earlier this month by the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), is to ensure better provision of public services such as broadcasting and telecommunications.

SARFT Vice Minister Zhang Haitao said the government was launching a new round of the Cuncuntong Project this year to make sure TV broadcasts are available across the entire country.

"This is the most important mission for our broadcasting business and we should all put it on the top of our agenda," insisted Zhang.

He said that the goal for the next five years is to provide broadcasting to all villages that have more than 20 households and access to electricity. Terrestrial transmission stations in towns and counties will also receive subsidies to improve their equipment and maintenance.

About 42 million people in more than 300,000 villages are expected to benefit from the program.

Zhang said the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the Ministry of Finance, and SARFT have held a working conference on financing the project. Although the amount of the investment has yet to be decided, he said tens of billions of yuan would be needed.

(China Daily March 27, 2006)

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