The state-run Chinese Central Television (CCTV) is the main television station in China and China’s only national television network. CCTV's roots go back to 1958, with the launch of a single black-and-white television station dedicated to disseminating dispatches of the Communist Party. Color broadcasting began in 1973. Regarded as government mouthpiece, CCTV mostly airs news, sports and shows that serves the interests of the Communist Party. The news broadcasts are dull affairs with party meetings, visits by leaders to factories and farms and meetings with foreign dignitaries.

CCTV makes billion-dollar profit and commands an audience vastly larger than every major television network in the United States and Europe. As of 2009 CCTV has 17 national channels and an array of cable stations, including a sports channel that often shows European soccer matches. CCTV is a model of China's post command-economy paradigm, a hybrid communist-capitalist conglomerate that is more financially and operationally independent than ever. Armed guards are posted outside of its entrance gates.

China Central Television (CCTV) celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008. Chinese President Hu Jintao said he hoped the CCTV to make itself a leading media group with strong international influence, advanced technologies, rich contents and good coverage. “Corresponding with the development and changes of domestic and international situation, the country will build modern media system and enhance the power of news media for domestic and world service so as to create a favorable social environment and atmosphere for public opinions, he said]

Early History of CCTV and Television in China

In 1953, representatives from China visited the USSR and Czechoslovakia to study television technologies. In 1955, the Chinese Central Broadcasting Bureau proposed the establishment of China's first television station in Beijing. Zhou Enlai adopts the proposal, stating that China's television industry should be part of the “Five-Year Culture and Education Plan.” Television's goals are propaganda, education, and cultural enrichment. [Source: Xinhua]

Beijing TV Station (later renamed China Central Television Station, or CCTV, in 1978) began broadcasting on May 1, 1958. The first broadcast included a 10 minute report on Labor Day; model workers report on production outputs; a documentary called “Go to the Countryside” shows Communist officials working with farmers; other segments include cultural programs, dance and poetry readings, and a Soviet program on “Television.”

There was only one channel, which went on the air a few times a week, for two to three hours beginning at 7:00 PM. The black-and-white broadcasts consisted of news, documentaries, entertainment and educational materials, and reached only the Beijing area. Initially, there were only 50 television sets, for use by government officials.

The first news item produced by the Beijing TV Station, airing on May 15, was a report on China's success in making its own cars. Its first newsreel covered the Red Flag, the Party's theoretical journal. News consisted mostly of still photos, text, and talking heads, along with news documentaries.

TV dramas were also produced, with heavy political tones -- “A Bite of Cabbage Cake” contrasted life under the Nationalists before 1949 with life under the Communists. It was broadcast live on June 15, 1958. * Morning Sun: Television in China * Wikipedia: China Central Television

20111107-Wiki C Central_Television_Headquarter_in_March_2008.jpg
New CCTV headquarters under construction in 2008

CCTV Business Operations

CCTV is a good example of how the Communist Party in China managed to make state-owned companies profitable as the nation become more market oriented and less government controlled, It earned around $2.5 billion in total revenues in 2008, up from $1 billion in 2002. Its advertising rates have been rising 20 to 30 percent a year.

CCTV’s array channels reach more than a billion viewers. It has cut marketing deals with the NBC and IMG Worldwide, the global sports and entertainment giant. It sponsors include Coca-Cola, Adidas and Proctor & Gamble. In November 2008, CCTV's annual advertising auction, which draws a bevy of multinationals and domestic companies, netted a record return of $1.3 billion; Procter and Gamble was the biggest buyer.

CCTV and Control of the News

CCTV is under the direct control of the powerful State Administration for Radio, Film and Television. As an instrument of the State it is censored and presents news and entertainment in way that is endorsed by the government and promotes government goals like engendering pride among Chinese and representing China as a happy, harmonious place.

CCTV journalist travel with the president and politburo leaders; they disseminate government news bulletins and often get approval for “exclusive interviews” with important public figures that no else has access to. CCTV was among the first to report officially on Tibet uprising and Sichuan earthquake, in both cases presenting the government’s take on events there.

In January 2009, a group of more than 20 Chinese intellectuals posted on open letter entitled “Boycott CCTV, Resist Brainwashing,” calling for a boycott of CCTV, saying it feeds viewers propaganda.

CCTV Programing

Typical fare on CCTV includes of dull news reports, Peking Opera performances, multi-episode historical dramas, Chinese mini series, copy cat games shows, nighttime soap operas with lying husbands and women that sleep around, reports of the success stories and achievements of the Communist Party and coverage of ribbon-cutting ceremonies and factory tours attended by high Communist officials.

The ”CCTV Spring Festival Gala”, shown on Chinese New Year, has traditionally been one of the highest rated shows of the year on Chinese television. First broadcast in the 1980s and watched by hundreds of millions of viewers, it features hours of comedy sketches and kitschy song-and-dance acts, often imbued with patriotism and themes emphasizing national harmony.

“Much of the network's regular audience are farmers and lower-to-middle income urbanites who tune in to see imperial soap operas and police dramas, singing contests and holiday galas,” Alex Pasternack wrote in the The National. “Though in recent years CCTV has sought to compete with grittier programming from local stations, with shows that forgo nationalist themes (one runaway hit was Divorce, Chinese Style), network executives are also obligated to abide by China's rigid propaganda rules.” [Source:Alex Pasternack, The National, January 23, 2009]

Lecture Room is a popular CCTV television news and talk show. In 2008, the main lecturer for the show Yan Chongnian was struck by someone when he was doing a book-signing. Many people sympathized with the attacker because Yan was often accused of “monoplising the rights of speech.”

In 2009, CCTV, China's state broadcaster, overhauled its programming to become more competitive with other national satellite channels. In the process, one-third of its were canceled. [Source:, December 22, 2008]

CCTV News Programing

“The network's flagship evening news program, Xinwen Lianbao, or “Network News”, is carried on every local news channel across the country, by orders of the government, and has an estimated nightly viewership of more than 660 million. But rather than Who, What, Where and When, the program concentrates on Hu and Wen---China's president and premier---with lavish coverage of their every statement and gesture.” When asked about CCTV's obligations to the Communist Party, one producer said, “But we're paid by the state...How can we not run stories about our leaders' activities”?

“The violent protests that broke out in Tibet earned surprising wall-to-wall coverage on a network known for highlighting the Party's “harmonious society”. The slant was less surprising: along with an endless stream of tragic stories told by Han Chinese victims, the broadcasts were peppered with references to a conspiracy by the “Dalai Lama clique”.”

That story faded when the devastating earthquake struck Sichuan province. “The network would receive some praise for its unprecedented coverage of a national disaster. But this wasn't an act of enlightened journalism. After unofficial reports started trickling out from the earthquake zone despite a gag order by the powerful Propaganda Department, the government had no choice but to backtrack. CCTV's coverage was a bid to wrest the message away from the internet, where young Chinese increasingly get their news---and vent their opinions. Though vivid and often moving, CCTV's coverage of the military rescue effort and the generosity of citizens steered clear of hard statistics and attempted to skirt the widespread school collapses that killed thousands of children.”

In 2003, CCTV launched a 24-hour news channel. It reaches Chinese audiences around the world and seems mainly to have been launched as a response to the Phoenix network (See Below). Before this channel was launched CCTV was known for its lack of coverage of real news. It didn’t cover the September II attack until a day after it happened. In 2003, both the regular news programs and the 24-hour news channel had extensive coverage of the Iraq war, often with anti-American slant.

Changes at CCTV Network News

CCTV’s Network News had traditionally and its “three segments”: the first ten minutes talk about how busy the leaders are, the middle ten about how happy people are across the country, and the final ten about how chaotic other places in the world are. The first segment was typically a fulfillment of the mocking ditty.” There's no meeting that's not solemn, no closing ceremony that's not a success, no speech that's not important, no applause that's not enthusiastic, no leaders that aren't attentive, no visit that's not genial.” [Source: Chang Ping, China Newsweek]

In early 2009, CCTV’s Network News broadcast went through a major overhaul. The formulaic half-hour of reporting on the activities of national leaders and positively-spun national events was replaced by programing that aimed to bring the show “closer to the people, with segments similar to the “cold news,” “hot news,” and “in my words” on news broadcast on Hunan TV. [Source:, August 26, 2009]

Some wondered whether eliminating reports on the activities of China's national leadership was really the best way to improve the program? In a column for China Newsweek, journalist Chang Ping wrote: Network News has had a redesign. I've watched a few days of it and find it pretty strange...The biggest change is that reporting on meetings and the activities of leaders has practically disappeared.

“The second and third segments have not changed a whit: it's just that the first ten minutes have turned into “everyone in the country is working hard.” Previously, no matter how dry the reporting about meetings and leaders' activities may have been, it was at least news that basically contained the “Five Ws” (apart from “what? and “why?). However, now you don't hear “today,” “yesterday,” or even “the day before yesterday.” It's all about “the first half of the year” or even “for the past few years.” Compared to moving news how “the country's great efforts to broaden areas and channels for private investment” “extols and demonstrates the new fighting force,” we'd be better off seeing what the leaders have been busy doing, and how many meetings have been held at the Great Hall of the People.

CCTV Airs Shoe Throwing

In February 2009, CCTV aired the full news footage of a protester throwing a shoe at Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a speech in Britain, an unusual step given the state-controlled media's routine censorship of incidents embarrassing to China. The protester, who was held by security guards, had shouted: “How can the university prostitute itself with this dictator?” [Source:Maureen Fan, Washington Post, February 4, 2009]

CCTV initially aired the report without providing details or showing the shoe toss, instead displaying to viewers only Wen's surprised reaction before cutting back to a studio shot. This prompted online reaction praising Wen's aplomb.

“The premier is elegant,” said one anonymous post on the Tianya bulletin board service. “I really don't understand, when China is getting better, why do foreigners always bother us? What kind of mental problem do they have?”

CCTV’s English-Language Programing

CCTV9 is CCTV’s English-language television. In addition to broadcasting in English it is known for airing panel news shows with frank discussions on controversial issues of the day. Established in 1986 with only six employees, it now broadcasts around the clock, is accessible on cable or satellite and is watched by over 210 million people worldwide. Many of its personalities were born in Chinese born and educated abroad.

The main anchor for English-language CCTV International is veteran Australian reporter and weatherman Edwin Maher. He told the Los Angeles Times he has to be careful about what he says. He can’t say, the phrase “mainland China” for example, because it implies that Taiwan is not part of China and said he doesn’t mind being a mouthpiece for the party line. “If the reports aren’t balanced, there’s nothing I can do,” he said. I can;t stand up and say, “You’re not giving the other side.”

Calum MacLeo wrote in USA Today: From running ads in New York City's Times Square to broadcasting in U.S. cable markets, China spends big money to get its views aired. This week, propaganda-heavy China Central Television (CCTV) launched programming for American viewers produced out of a new office building steps away from the White House. Among the producers of the English-language news broadcasts will be several U.S. journalists hired from Bloomberg TV, NBC and Fox News in bureaus throughout North and South America. CCTV says its operations in the USA will have autonomy from the People's Republic of China. At home, the PRC is tightening decades-long controls on the content of movies and TV programs to promote Chinese culture it prefers: safe, socialist and state-run. [Source:Calum MacLeo, USA Today, February 8, 2012]

CCTV's Overseas Programming

CCTV reaches 30 million Chinese living overseas. It has international channels broadcasting in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic and other languages. The network is leasing space in Manhattan and building a United States broadcasting center in Washington. While American television networks are closing foreign bureaus CCTV is opening new ones and expanding its foreign coverage and hiring more overseas producers and journalists.

In 2009 alone, the central government spent 45 billion yuan (US$6.6 billion) to increase the international influence of the Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television (CCTV) and China Radio International (CRI). CCTV added a Russian-language service and an Arabic-language channel that reaches 300 million people in 22 countries. CRI can now be heard in 43 different languages, and Xinhua is adding 117 bureaus around the world.

“Executives and government officials are also aiming to lure more foreign viewers, perhaps by turning CCTV into a Chinese version of Al-Jazeera,” Pasternack wrote. “A strategy leaked in mid-January indicated that the country's biggest media giants, led by CCTV, plan to spend an estimated $6.6 billion to expand overseas, just as many Western media outlets continue to close foreign bureaus.” [Source: Alex Pasternack, The National, January 23, 2009]

China's increasing sensitivity about its image abroad is reflected in CCTV's television broadcasts. In a New Year's essay, China's propaganda director Liu Yunshan emphasized the importance of burnishing that image. “It has become an urgent strategic task for us to make our communication capability match our international status,” he wrote. “In this modern era, who gains the advanced communication skills, the powerful communication capability and whose culture and value is more widely spread is able to more effectively influence the world.”

CCTV launched an Arab-language television station June 2009. Around the same time Xinhua began English-language television broadcasts in Europe. “CCTV has the resources needed to become a serious global news outlet like al Jazeera, if not the BBC," one CCTV producer told Pasternack. “We have a very competent staff; we have our own money to send journalists and correspondents around the world." He added that the network was also dedicated to capturing the attention of the world---a seduction its stunning and elusive architectural wonder has begun.

CCTV Global Expansion Plan

In December 2011, The Guardian reported: “China's state broadcaster is launching a major expansion in pursuit of an international audience, increasing its overseas staff fivefold by the end of next year and almost tenfold by 2016. CCTV hopes to win millions of viewers in the US and Africa with English-language services produced in Washington and Nairobi. It is the latest in a multibillion-pound soft power push, as Beijing searches for a "cultural aircraft carrier" to extend its global influence. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, December 8, 2011]

"Global competition nowadays is not just political and economic, but cultural. Countries that take the dominant position in cultural development and own strong cultural soft power are the ones that gain the initiative in fierce international competition," argued an essay in Chinese journal Leadership Decision-Making Information.

According to CCTV’s website, it had 49 staff posted abroad in November 2010---with 10 more in Hong Kong and Macau---and wants overseas staff to increase to 280 by 2012. That number should rise to 500 by 2016, across 80 bureaus. At the heart of operations will be six hubs: two probably in London and Dubai and others in South America and the Asia Pacific region.

It is understood to have hired some 150 people, with Washington gaining 60 staff. Most will be working for the English- and other foreign-language channels. Zhong Xin, a journalism professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said Chinese media had long wanted to expand and that incidents in 2008 and 2009---such as protests during the Olympic torch relay and riots in Xinjiang---persuaded the government of the need, because it wanted China's voice to be heard. Dong Tiance, a journalism professor at Jinan University in southern China, said: "Official bodies, media organisations and academia have agreed that our previous external publicity has had problems. These overseas initiatives are improving this, for example, by hiring senior local journalists and experts."

CCTV has hired Jim Laurie, a former ABC and NBC broadcaster turned consultant, to advise it and has offered generous salaries for local staff. According to his website, CCTV will broadcast at least an hour of programming daily by early 2012, and four hours by June, from its new studios. It has leased 3,300 sq m (36,000 sq ft) at a central Washington address for a reported $1.5 million.

In Nairobi, the Kenyan vice-president has said Chinese officials plan to increase CCTV's staff from 12 to 150. It has poached high-profile anchors from local networks for CCTV Africa. Whether these efforts will be repaid in viewing figures remains to be seen. One challenge has been delivery: Xinhua's CNC World news channel was originally available only online, although it can now be watched via Sky in the UK and Time Warner Cable in the US.

CCTV services are now available via non-profit broadcaster MHz Networks in Washington and it hopes adding unconventional means of delivery---perhaps showing programmes in shops --- could extend its audience. The second challenge has been persuading people to watch. Even at home, commercial rivals often trounce state offerings and there is widespread cynicism about news content.

While foreign-language state media are allowed to go further than those intended for a domestic audience, there are still tight constraints on their work. "In general people are perhaps still suspicious about the quality of some of the news programmes," acknowledged Dong Guanpeng, a former CCTV anchor who teaches journalism at Tsinghua University in Beijing and has advised officials on media policy. But he said CCTV could reach an audience of opinion-formers on China to begin with and that non-news programming, such as cultural shows, would increase its appeal.

Analysts say part of the aim is to improve China’s “soft power” capabilities, giving the country greater control over the way the Communist Party’s messages are delivered overseas. Arnold Zeitlin, a veteran correspondent turned consultant who teaches journalism at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, said numerous countries had attempted similar media pushes unsuccessfully. He questioned the point of spending "huge gobs of money" on the media expansion without addressing issues such as China's human rights record. "I would be surprised, if not disappointed, if most people buy it," he said. "To change China's image it is necessary to alter Chinese policy and outlook."

New Leader of CCTV

In November 2011, the New York Times reported: “The Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party has announced that Hu Zhanfan is taking over as president of China Central Television, better known as CCTV, a state-run organization that is the largest television network in the country, according to a report by Xinhua, the state news agency. Mr. Hu was vice minister of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, an agency that regulates some of China’s largest media industries and is widely thought to be conservative. The current head of CCTV, Jiao Li, will take a new position in the government, Xinhua reported on Thursday without giving more details. Mr. Jiao was appointed president of CCTV in May 2009, and before that served in the publicity department of the party’s Central Committee. Since a policy meeting in October, Chinese leaders have been pushing for various changes and regulations in cultural industries, media organizations and the Internet. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, November 25, 2011]

The The Guardian reported: “Chinese internet-users last week reacted angrily to remarks by CCTV's new boss, who said journalists' primary responsibility was to be a "mouthpiece". Hu Zhanfan, who gave the speech earlier this year as editor-in-chief of the official Guangming Daily, said "news workers" who defined themselves as journalism professionals instead of in terms of Communist party propaganda work were making a fundamental error. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, December 8, 2011]

New CCTV President: Journalists Should Be Government Mouthpieces

Soon after his appointment, the New York Times reported, the new president of CCTV drew fire from Chinese press advocates and others online over comments urging journalists to drop their pretensions of professionalism and submit to being mouthpieces of the government. Some on China’s free-flowing microblogs compared the new president, Hu Zhanfan, with the infamous Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. [Source: J. David Goodman, New York Times, December 5, 2011]

“The first social responsibility and professional ethic of media staff should be understanding their role clearly and be a good mouthpiece,” Mr. Hu was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying to a press association gathering this year, months before he took the helm at CCTV. His remarks, including a warning to journalists who do not take “up the position of mouthpiece” that they “will never go far,” were reported by China’s Xinhua news agency but attracted little notice at the time.

According to partial translation by the China Media Project at the University of Hong Kong of remarks reported by Xinhua Hua said: "A number of news workers have not defined their own role in terms of the propaganda work of the Party, but rather have defined themselves as journalism professionals, and this is a fundamentally erroneous role definition. Strengthening education in the Marxist View of Journalism and raising the quality and character of news teams is not just very necessary, it is a matter of extreme urgency..."Concerning social responsibility and professional ethics, editor-in-chief Hu Zhanfan believes that the first and foremost social responsibility [of journalists] is to serve well as a mouthpiece tool “. This is the most core content of the Marxist View of Journalism, and it is the most fundamental of principles."

Hu is an ex-newspaper editor and former vice minister of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. His rise to the top China’s powerful state television apparatus appears to have precipitated the resurfacing of his past comments on Chinese microbloging sites over the weekend.

“After Hu took the position of CCTV director, people expose his words, as they maybe disagree with them,” said Jiao Guobiao, a former journalism professor at Peking University, told the New York-based NTD television network, which is highly critical of the Chinese government. Mr. Jiao, who has sharply criticized the government’s heavy hand in China’s media, notably in a widely read 2004 article, told the network that Mr. Hu’s comments simply reflect the status quo in Chinese media. But he added: “The public is calling for objective, neutral, and diverse media.”

Quotes from Mr. Hu were shared more than 10,000 times on microblogs and Twitter, the Voice of America China reported, and elicited sharp criticism as well as dispirited comments from those Chinese who still view of journalism as a professional enterprise. “As a media student, I feel very depressed,” read one post, translated by the AFP. “People who are obviously doing advertising claim that they are doing news.”

Young Viewers, Internet Pressure and CCTV

Pasternack wrote, “While the internet is forcing officials to rewrite their rule books (the country's propaganda chief issued a memo in November insisting that state media be the first to report bad news), CCTV executives are scrambling to rejigger their marketing plans. “More than any other force, the internet has shocked CCTV out of its Sybaritic stupor,” said David Wolf, a Beijing-based consultant on Chinese media. “The data its leadership has collected over the past five years has corroborated what advertisers had been telling them: the internet was no longer a toy of students and foreigners,” but was starting to steal crucial young audiences from television. “CCTV knows it cannot long survive as an enterprise---or, indeed, fulfil its political charter---if it loses young urban professionals.” [Source: Alex Pasternack, The National, January 23, 2009]

“But for young and educated urbanites, tired of state-run news, bombastic war films and imperial soap operas, the internet and pirated DVDs hold more appeal. “Few of my friends watch any TV,” said Liang Jingyu, an architect in Beijing. “They're liars, a mouthpiece, and want to brainwash everyone.” Even the CCTV producer told me he doesn't watch his own network.”

“CCTV is trying hard to attract young viewers: last year it added a number of US programs to one of its high definition cable channels, including Desperate Housewives, 24 and Lost. A large part of the new building will be devoted to internet programming, which will distribute video to computers and mobile phones.”

“And the [new headquarters] building itself---the anti-icon icon---seems designed to appeal to those same disgruntled youth. “The building all but screams 'look at us---we're big, we're cool, we're global, and we're everything a smart young Chinese aspires to,” David Wolf says. “People who see the building as an talisman of bureaucratic ego miss the point. In both location and style, it is a monument to what CCTV aspires to be to its own audience.”

Protests and CCTV

On December 4 2001, a few hundred men and women from around China gathered outside CCTV’s the Beijing headquartersto do something brave or crazy: they wanted CCTV to hear and perhaps air their grievances. Pasternack wrote “Chinese authorities forbid such public demonstrations without a permit (and these are naturally impossible to obtain), but the assembled crowd, each of whom came bearing complaints about corruption or police abuses, had a few reasons for optimism. The government had declared December 4 to be “Legal Day” in 2001, in order to promote reform and warn officials about corruption. And two weeks earlier, an extraordinary memo from the country's propaganda chief to news outlets had demanded that protests, disasters and other unfortunate events be reported immediately---rather than being quietly whitewashed.” [Source: Alex Pasternack, The National, January 23, 2009]

“Later on, when CCTV-1's flagship news show Good Morning Beijing carried a feature on how the government would mark “Legal Day”, no mention was made of the demonstration. Outside a legion of white vans pulled up and, according to witnesses, some 500 police officers carted away hundreds of demonstrators to detention centers---a sad irony, since many of them had come to protest the unlawful detention of petitioners. I asked a CCTV producer about the protest a few days later. “There are always petitioners outside,” he said. “I'm now so used to it that I don't often pay attention.”

CCTV and Its New Headquarters

The most striking symbol of CCTV’s success is it new $700 million headquarters, an architectural wonder designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. In 2010, 10,000 CCTV employees moved into the digitally-equipped headquarters at the center of Beijing's cosmopolitan Central Business District, its executives will have placed the company on the map, literally and figuratively. The new location is an obvious hint of the network's ambition to shed its starchy, closed-circuit reputation and hurl itself into the 21st century as China's answer to the BBC.” [Source: Alex Pasternack, The National, January 23, 2009]

“But it is the new building's design---a skyscraper bent into an angular gravity-defying doughnut---that truly screams CCTV's battle plan to a global audience. Coincidentally or not, Koolhaas' new headquarters resembles amouth open in proclamation, or hung agape in disbelief, as if trying to figure out how it twists so much steel and glass...For CCTV the building is not just a new home: it is a logo writ large, an icon for network and state alike.”

“Many employees were nervous about moving in. One told the Nation that the building's size and maze of 75 elevators are a widespread source of concern, threatening to turn the building into the setting for a Kafka story. “We'll spend half the day getting to the top,” he said. “What we need is a new building that is larger and practical, not an extravaganza.”

Image Sources: Wiki Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2012

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