It’s difficult at times to make-do with the programming provided on cable TV in Mainland China for your traditional, native English-speaking laowai. If you’re one of the lucky few with satellite TV, or live in a government-approved foreign compound (or serviced apartment), you likely have access to HBO, CNN, MTV and a host of other foreign televisions stations. For the rest of us, there’s CCTV News in English, and occasionally local newscasts on Guangdong Television or Guangzhou TV in Guangzhou. (Full disclosure: I worked as a news host at GZTV when it launched its now defunct “Guangzhou English Channel”. Yeah, the experiment didn’t work out too well…)
As someone who’s been heavily involved in China media both here in the PRD and up in Bejiing and Tianjin, I can tell you that Chinese television stations are experimenting with English shows: Tianjin TV had a Business Traveler program (also a show I hosted), Shanghai has an English channel, and other provincial-level and city-level channels are considering more English-language programming. Sadly, many of these experiments haven’t quite worked (see Tianjin TV, GZTV) because of a whole host of reasons. Generally-speaking, English language audiences don’t typically trust Chinese broadcasters, no matter what they say. Why? Because what they say is edited (and often censored) by people who must make sure that none of China’s sacred cows are touched. The result is a mish-mash of milquetoast programs that try and serve all audiences and end up serving nobody.
So it’s a breath of fresh air that Phoenix Satellite Television, which currently offers up Chinese news in Putonghua, is planning an English channel. For those unaware, Phoenix is partially owned by both the Chinese government and Rupert Murdoch, strange bedfellows to be sure (or… are they?). Nonetheless, Phoenix does a good job of covering news in China; so good, in fact, it’s only allowed to broadcast to Guangdong. For other regions in the country, only 3 star hotels or above, embassies, etc, can receive Phoenix. It’s much more polished than CCTV, and often has debates that discuss some of those sacred cows, like the Dalai Lama or Taiwan. It has a mainland slant, to be sure, but when you consider the current state of news in China, this is one giant leap in the right direction.
Phoenix likely isn’t the magic bullet that will break down foreigners’ scepeticism of any news coming out of the Community Party’s mouth. CEO of Phoenix Liu Changle admits it will be a challenge (from the Financial Times):
Mr Liu said his new venture would also be at risk of being seen as part of this propaganda push, but he insisted it was a purely commercial undertaking.
In its Chinese programming, Phoenix has sought to balance some daring reporting with programmes designed to please the political leadership.
The station will apparently focus on economic and financial news, and also contain some language programs as well (maybe Da Shan will be making an appearance).
Right now, the legitimate international news networks broadcasting in English are few: the BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera (which burnished its reputation with stellar reporting recently during the Japan earthquake). Britain is represented, America is represented, and the Middle East is represented. On this side of the world, there is NHK (which is very Japan-centric) and Channel News Asia, based in Singapore, which hasn’t quite got the resources to compete on a global level. As the second largest economy in the world, there is a voracious appetite for news and information coming from China – including a desire to understand China’s point of view – that can only come from a legitimate, fair, high-powered and professional international news organization. CCTV is definitely not it. Hopefully Phoenix can make it work.