Eye of the Chicken
A journal of Harbin, China

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Yesterday in the late morning I turned on the TV, thinking that since Li Na had made it to the finals of the Australian Open, I might have a chance of catching the match. I never did find it; I found a CCTV channel that seemed to be a sports channel, but it was showing NBA games all day. (Basketball is hugely popular here.)

As I was flipping channels, though, I was reminded of what a queer beast Chinese television is. There are something like 38 channels, and every single one of them is government-owned. Not all are owned by the federal government; provincial governments also get in the act. There are lots of game shows, lots of news shows, talk shows, sports, cartoons, and made-for-tv dramas that often look like they've been produced on a shoestring, along with the requisite Chinese folktales. (I swear, I see that damned monkey from Journey to the West every time I turn the set on.) This makes for an incredibly bland palate of shows, let me tell you.

Of course, there's also an upside to this situation. Chinese television (like so much else about China) reminds me of American television back when we had three channels and everybody more or less watched the same thing. Here's a case in point: Chinese New Year's Eve is on February 2nd, and on that evening, CCTV will broadcast its Spring Festival show, which will capture about 70% of the Chinese viewing audience. By contrast, Obama's State of the Union address was watched by about 30.7 million people, according to Neilsen. That's 10% of the viewing audience.

What this means is that the Spring Festival show will be experienced by people in their homes much as it might be if everyone went to some central place and watched it together. Going through that experience with other people is a unifying event - in this case, a traditional and expected addition to the common culture. People will talk about the show and compare it to past shows. Lots of people think the New Year's Eve shows are corny, but everyone knows what they are.

I've always tended to think of state-controlled television as nothing more than a vehicle for propaganda (which of course, it is), but events like the Spring Festival show remind me that there's real value in everybody getting the same message at the same time. Coming together on specific occasions highlights the sense that we're all in this (whatever "this" is) together, that we have common interests and that we need to work for the common good. American culture at the moment seems impossibly fragmented to me. It's not just all the political bickering, either. I think there's a larger sense among a lot of people that "my" America is not "your" America, and we can argue forever about whose is better or whose is right.

I'm not saying that cable television has led to our current state of affairs in the U.S., but it's interesting to see the contrast with China. Because the Chinese have always understood the power of the medium as propaganda, they've not fallen victim to some of the pitfalls that we encounter. They're careful about what goes on television because they take it for granted that what you watch will influence your behavior and your thought. We dance around that idea but give it no play (because we'd hurt advertising revenue if we did). Their television is boring sometimes, but it's never salacious or gratuitously violent.

That's a trade-off I'd take, most days.

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