Schlock Goes East

Competition is bringing a more Western taste for sex, violence and melodrama to Chinese television





Tiandu isn’t exactly a model city. The vice mayor’s son dabbles in smuggling and other gangster pursuits, and his father uses his influence to protect him. His company employs murderous henchmen, who use jars of human fingers to scare up cooperation. Official blackmail is commonplace. A local customs officer recently discovered a shipment of smuggled Mercedes. Before he could take action, he was lured to a brothel, plied with alcohol and filmed in bed with a hooker. Like most of Tiandu’s population, he became a co-conspirator in the culture of corruption.

Tiandu is one of the sleaziest places that never existed. The setting of China’s hit television series “Black Hole,” the fictional city is loosely based on Fuyang City, Anhui province, site of an actual 1998 corruption case. It is a striking example of how far China has come since the days when its state TV offered a steady diet of propaganda, glorifying Communist party bosses as models of virtue. “This kind of story would have been impossible a few years ago,” says Zhang Dandan, vice president of Macau Five Star TV. “The government knows people are smarter now, and that it can no longer lie to them.”

The edge is likely to get sharper. About 90 percent of China’s 400 million homes now have at least one TV set. At least one in four has cable. Last year ad revenue reached an estimated $11.2 billion. With China opening up, the government has allowed News Corp., Disney, Star TV and AOL Time-Warner limited access. Rating companies like ACNielsen are getting their people meters” into more homes, offering ratings proofthat entertainment formulas aren’t working. This February state broadcaster CCTV put out its annual New Year’s variety marathon, the usual five hours of patriotic songs and lame dance routines. Newspaper reviewers slammed it. In one poll, 62 percent of viewers called it “unsatisfactory.”

Once a state monopoly, CCTV can only lose ground with the same old fare. CCTV has 10 channels that reach all over China. But as government subsidies fall and ad revenues rise, the number of city and provincial stations is increasing too fast to count. Estimates run from under 2,000 to more than 3,000. To lure viewers, more stations are buying or imitating Western shows. Recent arrivals dubbed into Chinese include “The X-Files,” about an FBI agent who uncovers a U.S. government conspiracy to rule the Earth in collusion with invading aliens. “Teletubbies” has been translated as “Antenna Babies.”

Imitations are more common. The latest rage is reality TV, but the knockoffs have a Chinese twist. In the Chinese version of “Survivor,” called “Approaching Shangri La,” players struggle to survive as a team, rather than to knock each other out of the game. Still, there is dramatic tension as players live for 30 days in the snowy wilds of southwest China, with only meager rations and 10 matches. The winner is the contestant who gets the most votes from the participants and the viewing audience. One highlight: a sentimental middle-aged man hugging a goat before his hungry teammates kill it. For the Chinese take on “Temptation Island,” producer Chen Qiang rejected the American format, which puts to the test of temptation on an island of beautiful singles. He says Chinese viewers would find it “immoral.” Instead, his couples stay together, competing with other couples in games on a tropical isle.

Talk shows need less softening for China. “On “Telling the Truth,” a man who denounced his favorite primary-school teacher during the Cultural Revolution recently reunited with her. As tears streaked his face, he apologized before hundreds of millions of viewers. The audience and the host were soon in tears as well. Somewhere, Oprah was smiling.

Newer dramas feature Westerners in roles far more complex than the old propaganda whipping boys. The cast of “Chinese Maids Working for Foreign Families” stars a dozen foreigners in a funny soap opera about the struggle of employer and employee to understand one another. With China’s entry into the WTO, and its victorious bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics, Chinese audiences are confident and eager to “engage the world,” says Mark Rowswell, a Canadian actor who is one of the best-known foreigners on Chinese TV.

There are still limits, of course. The censors recently yanked a Taiwan-made soap opera called “Falling Star Garden” after TV stations were deluged with parental complaints about a plot full of troubled, materialistic teens. In early March, the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual group had to hack its way into cable TV to broadcast an anti-government harangue by group leader Li Hongzhi. Says one Beijing media analyst: “To control people, the party needs two things—the gun and the media.” That means that as China’s TV gets more commercial, it will get more political only so far as the authorities allow. Anyone who goes too far could find himself in a real black hole.

© 2013 Paul J. Mooney