Two ways to deal with the Net threat

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 August, 2006, 12:00am

Newspapers around the world are trying to defend themselves against the inroads of the internet. So it came as no surprise when the mainland's 39 newspaper groups said they were joining forces with a state agency - the General Administration of Press and Publication (Gapp) - to plan a survival strategy for China's print media.

Their master plan will be announced next month, but they have already declared one target: they want three out of every 10 households to be buying a newspaper regularly by the end of 2010. If that sounds ambitious, then some mainland newspapers are already taking their cues from the internet, in an effort to boost their sales, by increasing their coverage of celebrities. Internet search companies Sina, Sohu and Baidu realised early on that their target audience preferred entertainment stories to hard news.

But while the print media braces for an overhaul, the mainland's TV stations continue to operate as if the internet didn't exist. The result is that more and more people - especially the students and graduates who are the holy grail of advertisers - are switching off their TVs and downloading their favourite shows onto their home computers.

Over the past year, websites like PPlive, Coolstreaming, YDY and QQlive have become some of the most popular Web destinations. They offer free downloads of hit US TV shows like American Idol, CSI: Miami and Lost, as well as Taiwanese series such as Dou Yu.

Downloading TV shows and watching them on personal computers is a worldwide phenomenon. And it's not hard to see why it has become so popular in China. CCTV's mix of old-fashioned soap operas, classic movies and propaganda masquerading as documentaries is enough to make anyone seek out more challenging viewing. Even when CCTV does import hit overseas shows, as it did with Desperate Housewives late last year, the censor's cuts change them fundamentally.

Downloading TV shows violates copyright laws. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, online piracy cost the Hollywood studios and their TV affiliates US$2.3 billion last year. But the websites that offer downloads do so for free, and stress that it's about peer-to-peer sharing, rather than a vast commercial operation.

While it's the young who watch TV via their computers, plenty of other people on the mainland are turning towards overseas programming. Sales of satellite dishes are booming, despite a 1993 law that prohibits individuals and work units from setting up dishes that can receive foreign programmes.

Despite all this, there has been no sign that authorities will relax their rules on what's allowed to be shown on mainland TV. In fact, the guidelines are becoming more rigid. Last week, the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV banned the showing of foreign-made cartoons between 5pm and 8pm. At the same time, Beijing's Anti-Pornography and Anti-Piracy Office launched its latest crackdown on illegal satellite dishes.

A combination of protectionism and a head-in-the-sand approach isn't going to get people tuning back into CCTV, though. On the contrary, stopping youngsters from watching their favourite Japanese cartoons - in a misguided attempt to strengthen the domestic animation industry - will only create a new generation of alienated viewers. Until the programming changes, the satellite salesmen and internet TV pirates will continue to prosper.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist