Upstart provincial television broadcaster Hunan TV has been one of China’s hottest media topics since its fabulously popular “Super Girl” program topped the ratings charts last year. Some said it was giving the state broadcaster, China Central Television, a run for its money. “Super Girl” has apparently survived talk of an official crackdown and is now rolling out its second season. But as a pioneer of internal television station reforms in China and an unapologetic provider of purely entertainment fare, Hunan TV finds itself at the center of the debate over media reform and commercialization. In its May 11 issue, People Weekly devoted 23 of its 80 pages to interviews with Wei Wenbin, the “commander” of the Hunan-led entertainment revolution, and others in the province’s broadcast industry. Selected translations of the issue follow:
Wei Wenbin Carves Out an Entertainment Empire (editors’ note)
Open up the pages of local rule in Hunan and you see peasant revolts, insurrections, wars … Its modern history too is one of courage … [Article cites the Wuchang Uprising of 1911, which precipitated the downfall of the Qing Dynasty, Hunan as a centre of rural movements, an important battleground during the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945)]. Hunan’s history is one of rebels and resistors standing proud. [Link to online version of editors’ note]
In this peaceful time of change, the courageous and stand-out people of Hunan are perhaps designated by fate with the power to create commotion and restlessness … In 2005, the enthusiastic welcome of the people across China brought the 10-year procession of Hunan broadcasting to a critical juncture, one of infinite possibilities but at the same time infinite risk.
This entertainment force arising from “Xiang Shui” [an ancient name for Hunan], now entertains “the greatest mass of people” [最广大的人民群众, a phrase often appearing in official party documents to refer to the people of China], and has managed to “rally together” a great mass of wealth and a substantial market. It has made industry colleagues bitterly envious and competitors uneasy in their beds and at their dinner tables.
But along with this [success] have come troubles that are almost impossible to count. The fate of the [immensely popular] “Super Girl” program, which was held in doubt earlier this year, has only in the last few weeks come back to life through much hardship … [NOTE: There were rumors the program might be shut down by officials] …
“Big brother” eats meat, “little brother” drinks soup. Under China’s national television structure, divided up according to administrative rank, there has always been just one big brother at the top … “The wolves are coming!”, Chinese intellectuals once chattered [of multinational media giants and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization]. But nothing has changed in the last few years. Multinational media giants, who came coveting the fat [of China’s media market], found in the end that they could only gather outside the big doors. Moreover, their sense of superiority meant they could never resolve local issues [dealing with the political hurdles, finding the right partners, etc]. The academic-styled stars serving as anchors for [Hong Kong’s] Phoenix Satellite Television can only talk cautiously about essential topics of news, politics and culture to the guests of Chinese hotels three stars or above.
For the last 10 years, on the silent and wide open field of China’s television industry, this force of restlessness and vitality [Hunan’s broadcasting entertainment mechanism] thrashed about and pushed the bounds. They made the first public offering of a broadcast media company on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange (Hunan Broadcasting Group) [Coverage of ill-fated link-up with News Corporation here]. They founded the country’s first provincial-level electronic media group (Hunan Radio, Film and Television Group) [People’s Daily coverage here in English]. They hosted the first “Golden Eagle China TV Art Festival” [a television awards program in which viewers vote for the top entertainment awards]. The audience ratings of their flagship satellite station, Hunan Satellite TV, directly pressured the industry’s big brother, China Central Television, with programs like “The Rose Contract” [a dating show] and “Kuaile Da Benying” [a game show] and a whole series of other programs bursting onto the national scene and bringing a host of imitations. 2005’s “Super Girl” [a singing competition modeled after “American Idol”] brought even more fierce interest from people all over the country.
Through endless difficulties and outside skepticism a powerful entertainment media group quietly emerged, including the Hunan Broadcast Television Center, Changsha’s ColorfulWorld [a multimedia website], Hunan International Convention & Exhibition Center, Golden Eagle Television Arts City (金鹰影视文化城). The people of Hunan are dreaming the bold dream of building a “Hollywood of the East”.
Someone once said that Hunan has two major brands – one is Yuan Shengping (袁隆平), the other is Wei Wenbin. One developed Chinese rice hybrids [profile here in Chinese], the other mustered Hunan’s television forces (电视湘军).
In China, system reforms have always been an incredibly difficult topic. Wei Wenbin’s importance lies in the fact that he is a pioneer in an extremely sensitive area [media reforms, specifically commercialization], and has won major successes. Still, people can push, but they cannot push the bounds of the system. In the current system, it would be unrealistic to have too many hopes for Hunan TV, because it too is a monopolist. And it is by virtue of the fact China Central Television must bear the heavy burden of serving as China’s national television broadcaster that the people of Hunan the space to be clever and break out [In other words, CCTV is bound most tightly by state propaganda mechanisms because what it says is seen as a representation of China. In contrast, Hunan TV, though also subject to the pillars of media control, is free to dance and be footloose, carrying out its project of commercialization].
Television Giant Wei Wenbin (interview portions)
… In 1993, 43 year-old Wei Wenbin was appointed to a new position as Director of Hunan Province’s Broadcast Office [This is a ting ji (厅级) level position, the second tier in the national bureaucracy, below provincial-level officials]. At the same time he served as secretary of the office’s Party Organization (党组) and station head of Hunan TV, holding all of the power of Hunan’s broadcasting network in his hands. Entrusted with such power, Wei Wenbin felt a debt of gratitude and was seized with emotion. “At that moment, I made a pact with myself, that I would set broadcasting right in Hunan”.
He wanted to know how television stations were run overseas. He found materials and researched for over a month. “As soon as you saw it, it bowled you over. The production value of the American newspaper industry long ago surpassed the steel industry, and one Hollywood built an entire Los Angeles. Media groups can bring in tens of billions of US dollars every year. How exciting and scarifying it is [to learn that].
“I realized that this industry I was a part of had enormous potential. The demands of the viewers were a mine of riches, and whoever could tap into that would stumble onto a goldmine. I think we should approach the media as an industry, one with great room [for growth] and a vast market. What is an industry? … An industry is about having commercial products. Only when you have commercial products do you have a market economy”.
In the 1990s China faced a new form of hunger. Those who had just resolved the question of subsistence found themselves grasping leisure time and some discretionary income, and they had no idea what to do. As non-material products were in great scarcity, we all at once had “one billion people playing Mah-jongg”, and feet washing, massages and other forms of entertainment started popping up on the streets and becoming popular. Among young people, Hong Kong music became hot, and television dramas had a strong impact.
To have a full stomach but be full of desires. This concerned Wei Wenbin. “This is a severe social problem. If a country lacks cultural products, then its people lack calcium, they are pale and face destruction. If a country is fostered on imported culture, it faces destruction.” In the early 1990s he appealed many times for the building of customs and piers for [the control of imports of] cultural products …
PW: “Did you have any worries you would fail when you visualized building a 1.3 million square meter industry complex?”
Wei Wenbin: (slowly and resolutely nodding his head) Of course I thought of the consequences. If I knew beyond a doubt that I couldn’t do it, dragging so many people into it, wasting energy and money – speaking as an intellectual, I would not have done it. This is a city [Changchun] you know, and we’ve invested several billion yuan. Back then it was 1.3 million square meters, but now its 1.7 million. Before this was wild country. There was nothing here except a few rural family homes – there weren’t even roads, and there was no water or electricity. If I had thought it couldn’t be done, I wouldn’t have done it. I did it with enthusiasm. I firmly believed it could be done. I thought it had to be done. Of course, it was a wonder to see it done.
PW: How much encouragement did you get from other officials for this huge undertaking?
Wei Wenbin: They don’t have the know-how [to understand it]. If there are a lot of people who don’t support you, you just do what you have to do, and don’t get hung up on this question. Once the thing is done and people have seen it, it will speak for itself. This is how it works. I didn’t buy this black gauze hat [official position] or pick it up somewhere; the party put it on my head. It was given me by these times and this opportunity. So when I face my colleagues and the people, I don’t think of protecting it [this official post]. When the wind comes and blows it off, that’s that. When I started off on this path I was already pretty well prepared psychologically.
PW: “When the people were raising their voices against it, how did you feel then?”
Wei Wenbin: l’ll tell you, at the time some of the big things I did, like send up a satellite, build this center, take the company public – a lot of people didn’t support those things or approve of them. They didn’t get it, because doing these things was too unprecedented. In the past, Mao Zedong said that the masses created history, but the masses and the decision-makers are always different. This difference is that decision-makers or leaders always have to move ahead of the masses on some things. If the decision-makers are always with the masses there is no distinction between leaders and the masses. When your ideas run ahead into the distance, running far, far ahead, resistance to what you’re doing is strong. (He takes a long sigh and is quiet for a moment). They don’t understand you, and don’t support you. If something is not understood and supported by the masses you can well imagine how difficult it is. We don’t want to gripe about the masses, but their perspective on problems is different from yours. They see things from their own angle, seeing only a small piece. Herein lies the difference.”
PW: “Can you give us your take on that time?”
Wei Wenbin: “I was talking about this with someone yesterday and I talked myself to tears. It was tough, and very sad. I lost my sensibilities, lost … (he falls silent) … perhaps lost everything I had. When the basic building had been done and I’d just made the investment, I knew then just how many tough years I had ahead, how many years of blame I would endure. Neither those above nor those below understood me. I was upbraided, and people said I was hungry for glory. I heard it all. The year we had just clinched our investment capital, as I was meeting with our earliest team in an office in the city, I said something to them that still resounds in my heart. At that moment I was really moved, and everyone there cried. I said, ‘Comrades, I beg one thing of you. What we’re doing is magnificent work, and I hope none of you makes a misstep. Do not make any mistakes when we’re doing our building, inviting public bidding, or making contact with heads of labor contractors or various other businesspeople.’ I said, ‘Whatever you do, let’s not have our own people sliding one by one as our building is going up stone by stone. This is a fierce battle. I hope everyone is mentally prepared’. I was afraid, afraid that they might cause trouble for the sake of a few thousand yuan [in kickbacks]. At the time, I had two hopes. The first was a prayer to the powers that be that my health be safeguarded, that if fate had cancer in store for me, it waited for the completion of the [broadcast] center. [The other was that] if I wasn’t careful enough and made a misstep, and higher-up officials dealt with me, this happened after the center was built …(sigh) … I can’t say clearly myself how it was that I accomplished this …”
PW: “What made you set out to complete a job that by its very nature would take several generations of people to accomplish? For such a huge price, do you think personally that it’s worth it?”
Wei Wenbin: “After everything I’ve just said, you’re still not understanding me. If I were one of the masses, I wouldn’t think this way. You ask if I’ve had difficulties or not. Has it been risky? Did I stand a chance of being utterly discredited? I never thought about (these things). But there’s one answer I’m clear about. You ask whether I will succeed or not? I will definitely succeed!”
Wei Wenbin and his Hunan television troops have always set their sights on breaking through the limitations of local television and moving out of Hunan [expanding their market]. This means that CCTV, a family which once had a plate all to itself [the privilege of a total monopoly], now has to fight for food with several families. For several years now, Hunan TV has topped the list of local satellite broadcasters in terms of audience ratings, and several explosively popular programs have put some pressure on “big brother”. CCTV must rethink the makeup of its entertainment programming, its packaging, and begin to take stock of this local competitor.
In 2005 a program called “Super Girl” made relations between CCTV and Hunan Broadcasting stickier than ever. As the “Super Girl” craze swept the nation, well-known anchors and spokespeople from CCTV stood on their moral soapboxes, condemning “Super Girl” for its sensationalism. On the other hand, many media and netizens used pointed language to vent long pent-up disappointment over CCTV. In April 2006, weathering the suspense of an “official document” [seeking the closure of the program], “Super Girl” again rung up the curtain, but under severe criteria of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.
In the wake of the “Super Girl” craze, research into the competitive postures of CCTV and Hunan TV became a focus of media big and small – financial media looked at revenue figures of the two, and several major papers said things about the stations’ respective television dramas. “PK”, the new word arising from “Super Girl”, all at once become the most frequently used word on both TV networks.
The end of 2005 was the time when nationally broadcast television stations assessed their achievements and fought for advertising clients. According to numbers from CCTV-SuoFuRui [a CCTV market research group (央视-索福瑞)] for 2005, between January and September, Hunan TV was ranked fourth among all satellite stations in China based on audience ratings, following closely between CCTV’s main channel and CCTV channels 3 and 8.
Hunan TV held its bidding for 2006 advertising on November 9, 2005, in Beijing. Nine days later, CCTV held its annual bidding for prime-time [advertising slots] here [in the capital]. Hunan TV took the following attitude toward this: “CCTV is the Big Mac [the big kid on the block], and its clients are concentrated in Beijing. We can bask in CCTV’s rays (我们可以沾沾央视的光).”
Here you can see the caution and reticence. Interestingly, an academic expert in media sales structures gave this appraisal: CCTV’s attitude at its 2005 bidding was somewhat changed, “more self-effacing than ever”.
So the relationship between Hunan TV and CCTV becomes a topic impossible to avoid in this interview. As soon as the subject comes up, the free and easy Wei Wenbin becomes more guarded. He says several times that he wishes to avoid this topic, but under the persistence of the reporter, he finally answers with extreme prudence.
PW: “What is your position on competition between Hunan TV and CCTV?”
Wei Wenbin: “Why is it that you media like this question so much? I can’t say I don’t have my reasons for backing out [of this question], but I don’t really wish to answer that question. I don’t understand why everyone cares about this question.”
PW: “Because you have definitely made CCTV nervous.”
Wei Wenbin: (laughing) “There is nothing strange at all about that. Making CCTV pay careful attention to a series of things, that’s good. There’s no need to say it has [made them] nervous. Good competition is a very normal thing, and there’s no ill-meaning in it. I’m sure CCTV also hopes the local stations below them offer something good for their reference. How could we possibly compete with CCTV? How could a child of just 10 years compete with a mature person of 30 years? They are on entirely different scales. What is more, if we must talk about CCTV’s competitiveness, I have only one hope, and that is that CCTV gets better and better. I don’t hope that Hunan TV does things better than CCTV.”
PW: “Why don’t you want Hunan TV to go things better than CCTV? That’s a bit tough to understand.”
Wei Wenbin: “Because, after all, CCTV is our national TV station, and I’m a part of China. I hope it gets better and better. If it’s not done well, I’ll have my own opinions.”
PW: “But what if one day the market picks you guys?”
Wei Wenbin: “Mm … What do you mean by that? How can the market possibly discard CCTV?”
PW: “I don’t mean discard. What I mean is what if Hunan TV wins out in terms of market competition?”
Wei Wenbin: “This is something that’s impossible. It’s absolutely impossible within the next 10 years. In terms of talent and resources, including policy [political] resources, Hunan TV cannot conceivably overtake CCTV. You want me to speak the truth? I think that under the same blue sky, Hunan TV and CCTV having a bit of competition is a good thing. I don’t want the audience to have that kind of an attitude – that one station is good and the other one bad, or that I can only choose one between two stations. I don’t harbor these kinds of intentions, or that kind of ambition.”
PW: So you mean it’s the public and other media that have made you out to be CCTV’s enemy, hoping you’ll play the role of challenger?”
(An assistant at Wei Wenbin’s side points out that it’s not good to talk about things in such a way, to make out Hunan TV as having this kind of role, that this is actually unfavorable for the station)
Wei Wenbin: Of course CCTV will have some programs that aren’t done so well. This is only natural. They have more than ten channels of programs, and more than 10,000 people. Isn’t it laughable to expect every program to be perfect, every channel to be the best there is? There are some CCTV programs that are not done so well, and as it would happen there are some programs from local stations that are done better. Isn’t this just normal? Thirdly, CCTV is the national network, and it must safeguard the interests of the country. CCTV has things about it that make people uneasy, for example that it monopolizes all of the [national broadcasting] resources. If it monopolizes everything and orders others around, of course this is going to make people a bit uneasy. But we only want to improve it, not to overturn it. If certain reporters or programs at CCTV say things they ought not to, this of course doesn’t represent CCTV’s leaders. Zhao Huayong (CCTV’s network head/台长) once said to me, your ‘Super Girl’ program is very successful.”
[October 2000 coverage of Wei Wenbin by The New York Times]
[November 2005 coverage by The New York Times via China Digital Times]
[Hunan TV on Chinese Wikipedia]
[Posted by David Bandurski, May 11, 2006, 11:05am]