China Made Your TV. Can It Make Your TV Shows?

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In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama reminded us of China’s turbocharged economy outstripping our own. But when it comes to the global culture war for hearts and minds, the United States remains the unrivaled superpower. For now.

If China can make iPads and televisions, why can’t it make the content to fill them? Last month, President Hu Jintao announced that his government was investing heavily in homegrown, exportable cultural programming. And yet, just days later, the government shut down two-thirds of its domestic satellite television shows — many of them frothy variety shows and reality programs — for undermining Chinese values. “Culture is ultimately the clashing and then the adoption of new ideas," says Carlos Tejada of The Wall Street Journal. "The Chinese government’s control of the media is simply opposed to that.”

Tejada, the Journal's China editor based in Beijing, tells Kurt Andersen that the government took action to bolster its national broadcaster CCTV against more independent regional networks. He points to CCTV's televised gala celebrating the Chinese New Year, which China would like to make an Oscars-like international event, as an example of how government programming comes up short. “It's one of the most boring things I've ever seen," Tejada says. "A lot of cameras focusing on important people in the audience. It’s really a snoozefest.”

Shi Tao, a producer with Beijing Television, said that a televised celebration of Chinese culture has the potential to reach international markets if broadcasters will meet their audiences halfway. “Western audiences will never watch the galas unless they become more international,” he predicts. “If we produce the gala in New York City or San Francisco, bring over Chinese stars and have them perform with the local superstars who live there, then American broadcasters will buy it."

Directors like Zhang Yimou are popular in Western art houses, but if Beijing wants China's movie industry to rival Hollywood, says Tejada, it must allow filmmakers to tackle more controversial themes. “If they’re going to create their own version of Avatar, they need to create their version of The Searchers first. This is a vibrant, interesting, fast-growing, exciting place. All the government has to do is take its hands off.”


Video: Hunan Satellite TV’s Spring Festival Gala

Tejada calls CCTV's official gala a "snoozefest" compared to Hunan Satellite TV's broadcast, which featured Shaquille O'Neal kung-fu fighting with children. "[It was] entertaining and funny, and that’s exactly what the central government doesn't want," he says, "eyeballs looking away from the national broadcaster."

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