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Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 22:44 GMT 23:44 UK
China's media gets wings
A man walks past an advertising hoarding in Beijing
Advertising is now crucial for China's TV stations

Hunan TV station does not look like the beginnings of a media revolution.

The station's home is in Changsha - a poor backwater in Central China. Hunan TV's studios are a faded 1950s-era building where the hallways smell of stale cigarette smoke, and where the sets look like they are held together with string.

Now we actually have to entertain people

Hunan TV chief Ouyang Changlin
But there is a transformation taking place here. Hunan TV has been flung into China's burgeoning market economy.

"Thirty years ago we only aired government propaganda and old movies," says station chief Ouyang Changlin.

"Now we actually have to entertain people. Otherwise, advertisers don't buy space and we don't make any money."

China has more than 1,500 government-run television stations.

Until recently they used to be propaganda machines, faithfully broadcasting official programming. In return, the stations - nearly all of which were loss-making - were propped up by government funds.

Out on their own

But now the apron strings have been cut.

The Chinese authorities want state-owned media to be self-supporting. That has sparked a battle for the nation's one billion television watchers.

"It's very competitive, but much better these days," says Mr Ouyang. "We decide what we want to air. Our programmes are popular so we're doing quite well."

Chinese camera crew
Chinese TV stations have more autonomy

In fact, Hunan TV is spectacularly successful.

The station's biggest money earner is a variety show called Happy Camp. It is unashamedly populist.

For two hours every Saturday night, Happy Camp's hosts tell bad jokes, play tricks on celebrity guests and encourage the audience to sing and clap along wherever possible.

It pulls in a colossal audience. One hundred million people tune in every week. The show is making Hunan TV millions of dollars in advertising revenue.

But the new crowd-pleasing ethos is not just confined to low-brow variety shows. Hunan TV's newsroom is buzzing with change.

Groundbreaking news

Bridget Wu produces the noon news. Twenty-six years old, fresh-faced and ambitious, Bridget is on a mission to get rid of the usual fodder of Chinese television news - Communist party work reports and departmental meetings.

She has started including foreign news, and even corruption exposes.

"Political news has its place," she says. "But we select our stories based on what the audience really wants to hear about."

It is that attitude that has won Hunan TV a huge audience share. Its shows are fresh and new, spawning countless copies at other television stations around the country.

Some of Hunan TV's programming even manages to push the envelope in this still highly-conservative one-party state.

Dangerous ambition

But that same attitude sometimes gets the station into hot water.

Until last year, Hunan TV's hard-hitting chat show - Talk it Easy - was hosted by a charismatic young man named Ma Dong.

Party poster in Anhui province, China
The Party still keeps an eye on output

The programme addressed issues that are still difficult to talk about for many Chinese people: divorce, adultery, dealing with rebellious teenagers. It rated well.

But the authorities thought Ma Dong went too far, and last year the government pulled him - and his show - off air. They allegedly took issue with one particular discussion about homosexuality which featured gay and lesbian guests.

Also unpopular with the regime was a discussion about China's spiralling wealth gap.

The wrong kind of chat

Ma Dong asked one millionaire guest how much his shoes cost. "Six thousand Renminbi," he replied. That is about US$750, and much more than most Chinese earn in a month.

It is just the sort of thing the government does not want to talk about.

Ma Dong has now found a new job in television, and he is philosophical about what happened.

"When they cancelled the show I was very angry," he says.

"But now I can understand. Of course the authorities thought it was too sensitive. They have to worry about social stability.

"If I was an official, maybe I would even do the same thing."

The Communist Party's desire to maintain "social stability" and keep a lid on any real dissent means Chinese television stations face a difficult contradiction.

The government has thrown them into the market economy, and they now have to scramble to win an audience and make money.

But while the Communist Party still watches from above, stations like Hunan TV are far from free to air whatever they choose.

See also:

10 Jul 02 | Asia-Pacific
09 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
09 Aug 01 | Media reports
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