China Central Television (CCTV) is the voice of the Communist Party and the most effective vehicle it has to spread its message, its education and its propaganda to the citizens of the world's most populous country. The station has also turned this monopoly into the most lucrative advertising franchise in Chinese history, which will bring in more than US$1 billion in revenue this year, double the figure of six years ago. It is the model of an exchange of power for money. CCTV can offer advertisers a national access unmatched by any of the mainland's other 2,000 television stations, thousands of radio stations, papers and magazines - a pipe into the homes of fishermen on the southern island of Hainan, of herdsmen on the Tibetan plateau and of the super-rich in their villas in Shanghai and Shenzhen. The political imperative of retaining the party monopoly over the airwaves protects CCTV in much the same way as the soldiers armed with machine guns guard the entrance of its well-appointed headquarters in western Beijing. Access is strictly controlled and nearby barracks house soldiers who are kept at combat readiness around the clock to protect the station. It was in the 1980s that the party identified television as the most important medium in a country whose population is spread over a vast, mountainous continent in which millions are cut off by poor communications and speak Putonghua poorly, if at all. It saw television as the best vehicle to deliver its version of the news as well as education, entertainment and sport, to spread the use of Putonghua and foster a sense of national unity around shared events and experiences. The government spared no investment to build transmitters, relay stations and satellites, adding an astonishing 61 million new viewers per year for eight years from the mid-1980s. By 1997, 1.094 billion people had access to television and by 2002 it was 1.115 billion. While the initial impetus was political and educational, the bureaucrats at CCTV's headquarters on Changan Avenue found that they were sitting on a goldmine. The party had given them monopoly access to the world's fastest-growing consumer market, which companies, foreign and domestic, all wanted to reach. Starting in 1994, CCTV started to offer by tender prime-time advertising slots following the main evening news, which is compulsory for local stations to carry, ensuring an audience of hundreds of millions. Companies lobbied furiously for the slots, offering bulging red envelopes and lavish entertainment to television executives and high officials able to influence the bidding. But CCTV found it could earn even more by an auction, which began in 1997, held each year in mid-November for slots the following year. The station turned the auction itself into a major news event, calling the winner the 'champion of the auction' and attracting nationwide coverage. Last month's auction raised a record 5.25 billion yuan, 19 per cent more than in 2003, with Procter & Gamble paying 385 million yuan for the best slot, the first time a foreign company has been crowned champion. Foreign firms won 15 per cent of the slots, compared to 4 per cent a year earlier. CCTV's advertising revenue has soared from 4.44 billion yuan in 1998 to 5.29 billion yuan in 2000, 7.53 billion yuan last year and more than 8.3 billion yuan this year. It rose for 40 successive months from May 2001 to September this year - while that of local stations fell from 6.6 billion yuan in 1999 to 4.8 billion yuan last year. Luo Yanjun, an analyst with Nanfang Securities, said that CCTV had a national monopoly. 'It has national coverage and is irreplaceable.' Li Ming, a Shanghai ad executive, said while provincial stations used satellites to broadcast their programmes, CCTV remained the most popular. 'Most people watch CCTV and their local stations, not programmes from other provinces. CCTV's coverage is better than anyone else.' P&G picked CCTV because it offered access to consumers nationwide for the wide range of cosmetic and cleaning products it aims at all niches of the consumer market, from the chic Shanghai office lady who buys face cream and bath salts to the farmer's wife looking for detergent for the family's weekly laundry. The winner last year was Mongolian Dairy, which paid 310 million yuan for the top slot and has proved to be a wizard at marketing. It paid 10 million yuan to become official sponsor of China's first astronaut Yang Liwei and since then has used a pretty girl wrapped in a spacesuit as its logo. The CCTV ads have helped the company to become the top dairy company in China and secure a listing in Hong Kong, in June this year. But the title of champion was no blessing for the three previous winners. Qin Chi, named after Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who unified China in the third century BC, was an unknown producer of rice liquor from a poor province of Shandong. In 1995, it paid 66 million yuan for the top slot, and during the first two months they were broadcast received orders equivalent to its total production for the previous 30 years. It could not brew enough and had to make emergency purchases from factories all over China. The following year, it paid 320 million yuan for the top slot - but the management couldn't keep up with the flood of orders, maintain product quality or meet its commitments to suppliers. It ran up huge debts and, in July 2000, a local court declared it bankrupt and auctioned the brand name. 'You can't blame CCTV for the collapse of Qin Chi,' Mr Li said. 'The ads were very successful, too successful, but the company didn't have the products or management ability to meet the orders. It was the fault of the company.' The chairmen of the other two winners, both manufacturers of DVD players, went to prison for financial crime. This forced CCTV to introduce a screening process for applicants, to try to ensure they would have the money to pay for advertisements and supply consumers with the volume and quality of products they promised. This flood of money has enabled CCTV to start construction of a futuristic new headquarters, at a cost of US$600 million, on a prime site in central Beijing that used to be a car factory. Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhas, the 230-metre-high structure comprises two inverted L-shaped towers joined high above the ground. The money has also given CCTV state-of-the-art equipment, the best of office furniture, and made its car park look like a showroom for luxury cars. But a good salary was not enough for Feng Ji, a vice-director of CCTV's arts and culture department. In October, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for taking 1.2 million yuan in bribes to buy and broadcast programmes. In 1999, he took 100,000 yuan to buy a police drama series called The Age of Shedding Blood and later took 600,000 yuan to ensure the programme a prime slot. He was the second station executive to go to prison for such offences in less than 12 months.