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Thursday, September 24, 1998 Published at 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Chinese viewing figures soar

Televisions in China - to own one is a prerequisite for marriage

Duncan Hewitt reports from Beijing

A survey published by the Chinese newspaper, Guangming Daily, shows that nearly 1.1 billion of the country's 1.2 billion population have now access to television.

The statistics, which were based on interviews with 16,000 people, also show that Chinese viewers spend over two hours a day in front of the television.

From almost no televisions at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, the number of sets in China grew rapidly through the 1980s, with ownership of a television becoming a prerequisite for marriage in many areas.

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According to the survey, China had 327 million televisions by the end of 1996, up around 10% from a year earlier. It says a total of 1.09 billion people have now access to television - 75% of them in rural areas.

Officials acknowledge that television has become a powerful tool for social change, bringing education to millions, particularly in remote regions.

But the images of urban luxury it shows are also thought to have encouraged the mass migration of rural people to coastal cities.

Awareness of television's influence is one reason why all Chinese television stations remain under state control, yet at least one Hong Kong cable operator has made inroads into China, and around a thousand domestic cable companies now compete with conventional channels, luring viewers with cheap prices, old films and foreign imports.

The 1960s British television series the Avengers was a hit on one Beijing channel. And with even Prime Minister Zhu Rongji admitting that he enjoys watching cable news, China's mainstream channels are under new pressure to compete.

They responded with limited exposes of official corruption as well as game shows and even dating programmes.

But though all this might seem like good news for makers of television sets, there's actually been an oversupply in recent years, with growing competition between domestic and foreign manufacturers leaving companies to slash prices, and in some cases offer a free 24-hour home repair service.

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