SINGAPORE — What was tipped to be a run-of-the-mill industry confab devoted to the TV market in China, turned out to be a small piece of history when a Chinese TV exec stunned a Mip Asia audience by openly admitting that Chinese television is controlled by the Beijing government and used for political ends.
Such a statement may not sound earth-shattering to Western ears, but veteran Beijing-watchers said they had never heard such an overt public reference to the propaganda question, even from somebody working in the private sector.
The only one of a four-person panel to speak in English, Gong Yongqiang, VP of China’s largest private entertainment company, Supersound Music Entertainment Intl., departed from the official script.
”Chinese network heads don’t necessarily know about the industry,” said Gong. As the audience savored this moment of unexpected frankness, Gong quickly added, ”with the exception of my three fellow panelists” — all of whom looked remarkably unamused under their translation headsets.
As the expressions of his co-speakers turned to marble, Gong ploughed on, explaining to those who didn’t know, that China’s cultural industry, including television, is government-controlled and that the government only invests ”in programs which can serve political needs.”
”Of course most people know that television is heavily controlled,” noted a Beijing-based media vet after the conference, ”but I have never heard a native Chinese exec say this openly at an international gathering.”
Having taken a quick swipe at the state of play in China, Gong, whose company has offices in the U.S. and whose business includes importing foreign programming into China, looked into the future.
Gong predicted that China will open up to outside investors over the next decade. Urging foreign investors to take a long-term view, he told the audience: ”The early bird catches the worm. Believe or not, you will make a lot of money in China. Come and invest.”
Rowan Simons of Hong Kong-based China Media Monitor Intelligence predicts that foreign coin will first find its way into production ventures as well as the consultancy business, before eventually being allowed to hold stakes in broadcasting outlets.
Chinese companies have begun seeking foreign consultants as they find themselves facing competition from other Chinese entities for the first time.
The possibilities of the Chinese television market usually make foreign execs salivate, despite the known difficulties of breaking into a country of 1.3 billion people, 140 million of whom have still to see their first television show.
With new channels such as Hunan Education TV, opening in China, buyers are on the hunt for programming, while still stressing the specific needs of the local market.
Li Zunduo, president of Wuhan TV, which serves the 7.2 million people of Wuhan city, said he had purchased 40 hours of science programs on day one of Mip Asia.
With a 24-hour per day sked to fill, recently-launched Hunan Education TV is also acquiring actively.
But if Chinese execs are hungry for product, not everything is suitable, by a long way. Referring to kids programming, Wang Qiyu, general manager of Shenzhen TV Dubbing Center noted that programs ”must not in any way relate to love. Scenes of dating must not be shown.”
Why? Wang suggested ”such scenes could bring about undesirable effects among the population.”
Forget ”Sex in the City” — the chances are that even ”Friends” will have to wait to make it into China.