PEKING — The new status symbol among China's rich peasants is the cai dian cun, or "color TV village," in which every household has a color set. Black and white is not good enough.
First introduced in 1958, television is now thriving in Communist China--from Guangdong, where antennas snare capitalist images out of Hong Kong, to Tibet's satellite relays.
Despite poor dubbing, melodramatic acting and what sometimes seems like "inaction news," Chinese TV claims a regular audience of 200 million.
Chinese factories produced 10 million sets last year, one million in color, but this fell so far short of demand that people are paying about $350 cash six months in advance for small imported portables. That's a year's salary for most workers.
The nation's first "color TV village" is in Pinggu county outside Peking where ex-farmers now in the construction business have used their profits to treat 1,300 neighbors to color sets.
From 200,000 sets a decade ago, China now has 40 million, by government count. Two state networks and 52 major local stations reach areas with about 60% of the 1.03 billion population.
The two-set family has emerged in households where elders want raucous Peking opera and youngsters favor soccer or a Hong Kong film.
A typical day offers about 10 hours of news and information, plays, cartoons, sports, lectures and travelogues about the Great Wall, Yangtze gorges and other landmarks.
In one service film, a Chinese family demonstrates how to cope with knives and forks, cups of coffee and other hazards of a Western meal, including hacking through a great lump of meat--an alien custom in a land of bite-sized cuisine.
Commercials began in 1979 and promote items as diverse as computers, lathes, shampoo, "tiptop anti-aging oral liquid" and wristwatches like those worn by China's Antarctic explorers. A 30-second spot costs about $180.
A favorite old movie is "New Year Sacrifices," made in 1956 from a story by Lu Xun in which a young widow, played by famed actress Bai Yang, dies in the snow after losing two husbands, several homes and a son eaten by a wolf.
China's TV university teaches mechanics, physics and 15 other subjects to 450,000 registered students.
On one wintry Saturday afternoon, two of Peking's channels were off the air while a Communist Party cadre occupied the third extolling economic reform.
"Our country isn't capitalist or imperialist, it's socialist," he exclaimed to those skeptical or confused about Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic policies.
Broadcasting is tightly controlled by the Ministry of Radio and Television, but propaganda is scant compared with the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution when Chairman Mao Tse-tung's wife, former actress Jiang Qing, used TV as a political weapon.
Kong Lingduo, CCTV's international director, acknowledged a lack of technical expertise--and money.
"People complain that TV drama follows a formula. When the talk is of love, it's by a beach. At the climax, waves crash on the shore. When things are tense, there's always lightning and a downpour. Playwrights should know more about life."
In the Chinese theater, stylized acting is exaggerated and TV directors have failed to adjust to their more intimate medium.
Many plays have Mantovani-like sound tracks in which the dubbed dialogue is delivered in a reverential hush, the zoom overworked and the meaningful look turned into a cliche.
"It's all too affected," says a Peking viewer, who craves a return of "Garrison's Guerrillas," an American series about convicts used as spies in World War II. It was taken off apparently because officials feared it taught people how to commit crimes.
Contracts and swap agreements bring East European films, wildlife documentaries from the American CBS network, and Britain's "The Jewel in the Crown."
Peking's crime rate fell last year on nights CCTV screened a Japanese serial about a women's volleyball club. The current hit is a kung fu series from Hong Kong, "The Story of Chen Zhen."
More than 700 TV films were produced last year, compared with eight in 1978, under the auspices of the China National Television Film Studio.
Apart from the occasional kiss--taboo in Chinese programs where even the most alluring actresses are covered up to the neck--imported material is devoid of sex.
However, Chinese dramas frequently show a posse of naked boys going for a swim, and news programs veer towards the gory, such as before-and-after pictures of Wang Gang, a boy in Hubei province who was born with three legs.
The most popular 10 minutes of the day, the Chinese say, is near the end of the 35-minute news when foreign clips are shown.