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Changing Channels in China

A foreign-owned TV network with 24-hour news and provocative shows is a hit with mainland viewers. But it has to watch its step.

September 01, 2003|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — TV reporter Rose Luqiu didn't think twice about charging into Baghdad when the missiles started flying in March. But when anti-government protests erupted in the streets of Hong Kong in July, Luqiu and her colleagues weighed the matter carefully before finally deciding to air a short story.

As the star correspondent for Phoenix Satellite Television, a Hong Kong-based network, Luqiu takes care not to offend the Chinese government. Doing so would jeopardize Phoenix's status as the only foreign-owned television channel with permission to broadcast news to the mainland in Mandarin, the dominant language there.

"Baghdad is international news, it's not so sensitive," Luqiu said. "But political stories, anything having to do with the mainland, are more difficult. To tell the truth without getting into trouble, it takes a lot of skill."

Yet the fact that the protest was aired at all represents the revolution of sorts that has been taking place in Chinese television with the growing popularity of Phoenix and the launch of its 24-hour news channel two years ago.

The government network, China Central Television, or CCTV, is largely a propaganda machine, filling its newscasts with official announcements and sleep-inducing coverage of party meetings. Phoenix showcases live reports from the field and plays up the personalities of its stylish news anchors. Topics never covered by the mainland news media -- such as Taiwanese electoral politics -- are dissected on newscasts and in provocative talk shows.

Phoenix also offers movies and entertainment on two other channels, everything from dubbed versions of the American unscripted program "Survivor" to Taiwanese dating shows.

By all accounts, the channel is a huge hit -- for those who can get it. Satellite dishes are illegal in most of China, except in authorized areas including foreign housing compounds and hotels. But illegal dishes abound (sometimes concealed near rooftops, sometimes not), and the channel is also obtained illegally via cable. Having access to Phoenix is a status symbol for China's growing middle class.

"When they purchase new homes, they want to know, "Do you have Phoenix TV?" said Victor Yuan, an opinion pollster based in Beijing. "When they book hotels, they want to know, 'Do you have Phoenix TV?' When they get together with friends, they ask each other, 'Do you watch Phoenix TV?'

"If you do, you feel very lucky," he said.

College students and elites are also regular viewers.

"Almost anyone with a TV in the dorm has the channel fixed on Phoenix," said Ran Meng- ming, a student at the Beijing Broadcasting Institute. "They provide more information. CCTV doesn't have the same freedom. If CCTV is the only thing you watch, you may miss something big."

Beyond becoming a status symbol, Phoenix has forced stodgy old CCTV and thousands of other regional channels to update their programming, media observers say. Some Chinese announcers have recently begun to doll up for the cameras, and are less robotic in reading the news. In May, CCTV launched its own 24-hour news channel -- some say in direct response to the challenge from Phoenix.

"Phoenix is not perfect, but it's a shock to the system," said Steven Dong, assistant dean at Qinghua University's School of Journalism and Communication in Beijing. "It shows how backward Chinese TV is."

The channel is also affecting the culture in other ways. Yuan's group recently conducted research into the lives of Chinese prostitutes, many of whom ply their trade in hotels. The women said they get little sex education from the official media but learned a lot from a former Phoenix program called "Sex and Love Classroom," which featured tips on protected sex.

Phoenix, which is co-owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch and has a staff of several hundred, operates out of a crowded floor in a Hong Kong high-rise. Advertisers include banks, drug companies and electronics makers. The station estimates that it can reach 42 million people, or about 12%, of the TV households in mainland China.

Beijing periodically cracks down on illegal satellite dishes, but mostly it looks the other way. One reason is that Phoenix (along with other foreign channels) is seen as a window on the West for elites and government officials who can afford satellite dishes and are considered sophisticated enough to avoid coming under the spell of outside media.

Still, there is always the threat of government enforcement. Phoenix, with its Mandarin broadcasts, has to be especially careful not to provoke action, media observers say.

"Phoenix is allowed to exist because it never infringes on the ideological principles of the Chinese Communist Party," said Chip Tsao, a freelance editorial writer in Hong Kong.

The Phoenix phenomenon is the result of a partnership between Murdoch's News Corp. and Liu Changle, a former soldier in the People's Liberation Army who went on to become a radio reporter and wealthy businessman.

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