Book review: Two Billion Eyes - the Story of China Central Television

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 6:39pm


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Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television
by Ying Zhu
New Press

In the most populous country on the planet, a nation where information is heavily controlled, there is perhaps nothing more powerful (or scary) than a state-controlled television network with a near-monopoly on the airwaves and the spread of news and discourse.

Step forward CCTV. According to Ying Zhu, roughly two-thirds of all television hours in China are spent watching CCTV, with the network owning more than a dozen channels and granted exclusive coverage rights to major national and international events.

Yet it is not a monolith. At its core CCTV is an institute of individuals trying to balance the often-divergent requirements of being a part of the state machinery with growing commercialisation and an audience who demand engaging content.

Two Billion Eyes is an attempt by Ying, a New York-based professor, to chart the decades-long development of CCTV since its founding in 1978 through the challenges and experiences of its key employees and management - putting human struggles at the heart of what can easily appear a faceless propaganda machine.

Starting from when it was first formed, with a staff of former army officers and people with the right family pedigrees, Ying shows the constant evolution of CCTV to what it is today - an increasingly global network covering news, sport, entertainment and culture, with channels in English, Spanish and French, and now broadcasting overseas via satellite.

The book is crammed with tales of young producers in the 1980s fighting to create programmes such as River Elegy, a documentary series on why China came to be defeated by maritime and ocean-based civilisations. About early bosses craftily inserting ads before and after nightly news programmes to increase the budget, against the rules at the time. And of anchormen - and women - pushing coverage in directions they are passionate about, despite knowing they are likely to hit a wall of censorship.

While ratings have always been key in the West, on the mainland programmes can, even today, be criticised or dropped for unpatriotic content. Earlier this year a new policy wiped scores of "Western-influenced" entertainment shows off Chinese prime-time TV because they were deemed inappropriate. Yet, at the same time, other shows can be lampooned by viewers for pandering too much to the state line. It is a difficult line to walk.

The high-level CCTV employees Ying talks to, all identified by name, are unflinchingly honest, especially when dealing with the negatives of state control at CCTV - and there are many mentioned, not least the destruction of talent. One producer, after years of painful run-ins with censors, fighting for the integrity of his programme, puts the problem succinctly: "The more heart you put into it, the more you will get hurt."

The author charts episodes such as the Sars outbreak - which began with a few small cases at the end of 2002 but became a nationwide concern the following year - and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake to look at CCTV's editorial constraints during crucial news events.

What becomes clear when reading Two Billion Eyes is that nowadays the viewer numbers are in many ways more important to those working at CCTV than the approval of their bosses. Without viewers they will get cut, even if they are toeing the party line.

As Ying herself puts it, in the past two decades CCTV has gone from a "primitive channel of state-funded polemic drudgery and propaganda" to "an aspiring player in China's newly commercialised media industries - at the behest of the state, of course".

CCTV is a key part of the mainland's cultural landscape, as well as in its soft power offensive, and a book like this offers a unique window into the corporation through the eyes of its employees. A worthy read for both industry insiders and laymen alike.