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Untuned With Global Realities, China's Rival-Free TV Market Stagnates

Without competition in the television industry, as there is for telecommunications and banking, Chinese broadcasters have little to offer viewers and a limited revenue model for themselves.

There's nothing on
There's nothing on
Ma Guoli


BEIJING — Since last year Chinese television has started to feel the threat of new media and to regard TV as a sunset industry. I personally hold the view that the culprit here is not so much fast-developing Internet TV but the fact that Chinese television lacks a competitive spirit.

New media technology originated in the United States. Almost all new media experiments and applications start there. Yet American television executives aren't as worried as their Chinese counterparts.

Take, for example, sports broadcasting. NBC announced earlier this year a $7.7 billion contract for airing the Olympic Games until 2032. The National Football League also signed television contracts worth $2 billion with NBC, FOX and CBA. Likewise, in Europe, Sky TV is expanding fast into both Italy and Germany. Europe's primary players in broadcasting, such as the BBC, continue to consolidate their own sites.

But in China, even the media censorship body called the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) fears that internet TV will eventually take over cable and render the entity's watchdog powers weak. Not long ago, SARFT issued a series of executive orders forbidding the use of two popular internet TV boxes that allow users to watch content from Internet streaming sites. It also warned China's Internet-TV portals that the foreign shows on offer will be strictly monitored. They worry that foreign content may pollute Communist Party ideology.

In the West up to now, not a single web television company has bought a sports asset worth mentioning. Though the Netflix streaming series House of Cards has been an unqualified success, it is after all a drama series with 13 episodes a year. The various U.S. television stations produce thousands of hours of quality TV series each year. It's simply unthinkable that they'd sell their own entertainment programs to online television providers.

For historical reasons, there is no competition in China's television domain. In recent years, though China's provincial satellite TV stations have copied almost all the world's popular entertainment programs and have certainly earned high ratings, they do not represent meaningful competition.

As for Chinese web television, their technology and capital came from the market — especially the U.S. market — and right from the beginning they have developed within a fully competitive environment.

But because these Internet television sites were born in China, they also carry a very strong Chinese-style characteristic of the so-called "primitive accumulation of capital," essentially a pre-capitalist process.

The main assets of television stations should be their broadcast rights. In a market society, stations should own the copyrights to excellent programs, either by purchasing them or producing them. But this is not the case in China.

The wrong revenue model

In short, China's web television broadcasters have overgrown, with American market capital, in a place where copyright restriction is almost non-existent. Were China's environment really like that in the West, then China's web television providers could scarcely have expanded so fast.

After 30 years of growth, China's television system, just like China's economy, needs adjustment.

The monopoly of China Central Television (CCTV) has its advantages but also its shortcomings. Until 20 years ago, the state mouthpiece owned just one watchable program — Xinwen Lianbo, a daily news program simultaneously broadcast by many other television channels and its best earner of commercial fees. The station is now also among the world's largest television groups, thanks to its Olympic Games, Asian Games and World Cup airing rights.

When a country as vast as China has only one nationwide television platform that enjoys enormous power, it's bound to create some bizarre side effects. For instance, even a small CCTV section chief on a business trip out of town can mobilize provincial leaders. Not only do its journalists lack self-discipline, but the company's reputation has been severely damaged by a series of scandals exposed this year.

Riding on the bandwagon of China's fast economic growth, CCTV has earned quick money and ranked well among global peers in terms of hardware. But its staff remain locked in a nouveau riche mentality. We are now on the 14th year of the 21st century, but it's hard to name a single creative Chinese television program.

CCTV has always worried that its cake would be shared if an equal competitor appeared. What it doesn't realize is that when there is a competitor, the cake will become even bigger. And though it won't be keeping the whole cake for itself, the absolute value would grow. If the government had allowed limited competition with CCTV, just like in China's telecommunication and banking fields, there wouldn't be many viewers left for Internet television.

New media have certainly impacted conventional television broadcasters. But they are far from equal, partly because of audience coverage and partly because of their still vague profit model, which is crucial to their survival.

If China's television is to grow stronger, it should encourage fair competition.

(Ma Guoli is a former director of China Central Televisions sports department.)

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