How reality has pierced through China's 'happiest 30 minutes' on television
Often mocked for propaganda and ignoring reality, mainland's most-watched TV news show has begun casting a critical eye over life in China
Mainland internet users sarcastically dubbed China Central Television's (CCTV) nightly prime-time newscast, Xinwen Lianbo, the "happiest 30 minutes" on television, but there are now fewer smiles than before.
Broadcast on almost all mainland terrestrial television channels and with a viewership of more than 100 million, the show has a well-set pattern: two serious-looking presenters deliver the news formally in perfect standard Putonghua; party announcements, government meetings and top leaders' activities always make the headlines, and there is a complete absence of expert opinion.
Some internet users summed it up in three phrases: the leaders are busy, the people are happy, and other countries are chaotic.
And a widely circulated joke on mainland social media sites goes: "I have a dream, to live in Xinwen Lianbo forever, where commodity prices never rise, traffic is never congested, the environment is always improving and criminals are captured."
However, viewers have begun to notice since the start of this year that Xinwen Lianbo's depiction of life is no longer perfectly happy.
The first unhappy voice came from a schoolboy on the second day of January. In a report looking back at last year, most interviewees, unsurprisingly, described it as "good", or "not bad". Then a six-year-old primary-school student from Inner Mongolia revealed his feelings: "I'm too tired … Chinese and mathematics are too difficult … why do teachers think up such weird questions?"
In the top story on January 20, a middle-aged woman complained about inflation. When asked about the prices of fresh vegetables while putting those she had bought into a plastic bag, she told a CCTV reporter: "The prices are too high, and we villagers can hardly stand that - too expensive. Can you report [that]?"
Her answer soon went viral on the mainland's social media websites, including Sina Weibo, which hosts more than 500 million microblogging accounts.
"Since when can we ask Xinwen Lianbo to report our difficulties?" a microblogger wrote about the programme, which is viewed as a propaganda platform rather than a reflection of reality.
Pollution also made the news on Xinwen Lianbo in January, when northern China was shrouded in thick smog.
From January 11 to 17, when the smog first hit the capital, Xinwen Lianbo focused its coverage on the air pollution, rather than on top leaders' activities.
On January 12, camera crews in Beijing, Tianjin, Hebei, Anhui, Hubei and Henan showed smoggy yellow skies, closed highways and pedestrians wearing masks.
That footage was followed by a 45-second animation warning the public that "PM 2.5, particles 30 times finer than a strand of human hair … has become an invisible killer".
In contrast, Xinwen Lianbo did not report on air pollution when smog hit Beijing on December 28.
That day, the top five news items were about the national leaders, followed by seven items praising model citizens and their good deeds. Only one item, lasting less than two minutes, warned viewers about the traffic safety hazards posed by the snow and the fog.
CCTV reporters have not been uniformly happy either.
A CCTV crew was attacked in Pingjiang county, Hunan , late at night on January 9 when it tried to film a paper mill's illegal discharge of waste into Dongting Lake. The scuffle between the mill workers and the crew appeared in the following night's newscast, in which questions were raised about the police's response.
"An hour after the crew dialled 110 [a public emergency number], the local police arrived," it said. "Reporters later learned that the police station was only five minutes away."
Other changes have been noticed too. From January 4 to 8, Xinwen Lianbo ran a series of stories about a demolition project in Chengdu. Instead of using the more propaganda-friendly term chongjian (reconstruction), the editors chose a more sensitive word, chaiqian (demolition).
There was no praise of government efforts, nor cheering of affordable housing projects. The reports focused on residents seeking higher compensation, desperate moderators and tough regulators, and failed to offer any solution.
Viewers spotted another interesting change on February 6, when a bare-bottomed infant appeared on camera when then vice-premier Li Keqiang was speaking with a man during a visit to villages in Baotou, Inner Mongolia.
News coverage of top leaders' trips is usually tightly scripted. However, the camera zoomed in and stayed on the boy for four seconds after he came out from a wardrobe and ducked under a blanket while Li was out of the picture.
"Xinwen Lianbo always features shiny faces and the buttocks represent honesty," an amused microblogger wrote.
There have also been changes in the way news items are presented. On January 23, after a report about a campaign to tackle food waste, echoing President Xi Jinping's appeals against extravagance, presenter Lang Yongchun sought comment from Yang Yu, a researcher at the National Development and Reform Commission's China Centre for Urban Development.
It was the first time a commentator had appeared live on Xinwen Lianbo since its debut in 1978. Later that night CCTV said on its Sina Weibo microblog that experts would feature regularly on the newscast.
Some mainland media had linked the changes to Xi's call for state-run media to report less on the meetings and events that national leaders attend, but instead select news items based on their "newsworthiness and social impact", Xinhua reported.
China Press & Publishing News said Xinwen Lianbo's ratings had risen markedly in the first five days of this year, compared to last year's ratings.
But Professor Zhan Jiang, a media expert, said much more improvement was needed.
He said the negative reports and some newsworthy items could indicate careful testing of the new national leadership's stance on news reporting.
"It is positive, but unless there's a fundamental change in the propaganda system, there is still a long way to go before it [Xinwen Lianbo] turns into a real news programme," Zhan said.