China, media near deal to trade programs

Thursday, September 6, 2001

BEIJING -- Looking to spread its culture through television, China said Wednesday that it is near an extraordinary agreement to allow direct foreign broadcasts into citizens' homes -- if an English-language channel run by the Chinese government is disseminated across the United States.

The agreement, if successful, would mean American cable boxes could serve up authentic Chinese cooking shows, homegrown kung-fu dramas, even newscasts straight from the central government in Beijing.

Under the proposed deal, News Corp. and AOL Time Warner could broadcast programming to homes in parts of southern China.

In return, the two companies would ensure wide access to the United States for CCTV-9, which is part of China's main state television network, said a spokeswoman for the State General Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

China's insistence on access for CCTV-9 reflects efforts to improve the government's image in the United States. "Many Chinese understand the United States, but Americans don't know much about China," said the spokeswoman, who wouldn't give her name.

News Corp's Asian subsidiary, STAR, confirmed it was in "advanced discussions" with the Chinese government.

"China's increasing openness augurs well for the whole broadcasting industry," James Murdoch, STAR's chairman and the youngest son of media magnate Rupert Murdoch, said in the statement. "We are hopeful that we can reach a positive conclusion soon and launch a new service."

Allowing one or both firms to broadcast direct to even limited Chinese audiences would be a breakthrough, though the government hasn't said just how much freedom News Corp. or AOL Time Warner would have.

China maintains strict controls on its media, and is unlikely to allow unfettered access to its citizens. Its regulations bar foreign broadcasters from reaching Chinese audiences directly.

What might come out of China, on the other hand, is an interesting amalgam.

CCTV-9 resembles what could happen if CNN, The Travel Channel and CNBC merged, then set up shop just off Tiananmen Square. Its China-heavy program schedule is occasionally interesting, sometimes bewildering, often a smidgen short of American network quality.

On Wednesday night, Chef Bai was aiming the business end of his cleaver at a passel of live shellfish, and he wasn't smiling. "First we're going to prepare the shrimp and cut the head off," he was saying. "This will make it more convenient to eat."

Other fare on CCTV-9 the same evening featured newscasts, an after school lesson on words for various fruits, and an intimidating shirtless men waving torches while people danced to a mysterious-sounding drumbeat.

Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said the Chinese shows would provide Americans insight into another culture.

"But I'm not sure the best way for a mass audience to learn about China is through China State Television," he said, "just like it's not the best way for China to learn about the United States by watching reruns of 'Dallas or 'Suddenly Susan."'

American TV first entered China in 1979, when the Chinese government purchased the aggressively mediocre "The Man From Atlantis," starring a pre-"Dallas" Patrick Duffy. Rapt Chinese gathered around TV sets to watch.

These days, foreign programming is aired on state-controlled television, and some foreign channels -- including CNN -- are piped into luxury housing. "Hunter" was popular several years ago, and satellite-dish owners can watch everything from "The X-Files" to "Kaixin Laoba" -- "Happy Days" dubbed into Chinese.

Any programming sent into China would presumably originate with China Entertainment Television, a Hong Kong-based operation run by TBS, a Time Warner division. Officials there are releasing few details.

"The goal here is to get increased access in China," said AOL Time Warner spokeswoman Tricia Primrose.

If negotiations succeed, China intends to allow New York-based AOL and Sydney-based News Corp. to broadcast to households in Guangdong, a booming southern province near Hong Kong, the broadcast authority official said.

"We have agreed that they can broadcast in parts of Guangdong, but not all the province," she said. "There are limits."

CCTV's presence in U.S. cable systems, meanwhile, could send American programming into uncharted territory.

"There are issues that are far from subtle here that really need to be addressed," Thompson said. "What if AOL Time Warner had existed back in 1936 and made a deal with German state television? How many of those speeches would we have let play?"

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