Written by Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley.

When looking at China’s soft power mechanism, much study has focused on the PRC’s rigorous international expansion of media outlets in the twenty-first century. Indeed it is worth noting that since the Chinese government announced its ‘going out’ policy in 2001 many new international platforms in different shapes and forms have been created. For example, CCTV-4’s overseas Chinese service was divided into three regional channels in 2007 — CCTV International Asia, International Europe and International America. While the original CCTV-9 became CCTV-News (or CCTV-N) to engage with English-speaking viewers in 2010, state news agency Xinhua also launched a 24-hour global news channel in English at the same time. Moreover, individual CCTV-French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian channels were established between 2004 and 2009 to target at audiences of specific cultures and regions.[1] When other international broadcasters, notably the BBC World Service, have been facing severe financial cutback and thus had to reduce services provided, CCTV’s forceful plans of international outreach with strong government backing demands close observation.

However upon further analysis, research shows that China’s international broadcasting strategy, designed to support the government’s public diplomacy campaign and soft power push, are currently unable to change the global conversation about China yet. The main reason is due to the tight connection between the Chinese authorities and the CCTV, which inevitably hinders the credibility of the message.[2] For this reason, I believe that the increasingly important role the CCTV plays in the international television documentary sector deserves serious attention because the transformation of CCTV documentary may succeed where the news broadcasting fails.

In this article, I will not discuss the ‘new documentary movement’ (or ‘independent documentary’) in China. Of course new documentary movement is important in its own right. As many such documentary films often counter official narratives, they need to seek funding abroad, participate in international film festivals and thus enjoy a diverse audience across national boundaries.[3] Nevertheless, since independent documentary is produced outside the state system, it is difficult to consider its result — whether success or failure — as engineered by the state or the CCTV. Hence my focus here is the officially endorsed internationalisation of CCTV documentary and its implications for potential development of the Chinese media and future research on Chinese cultural diplomacy and soft power.

I propose to take three inter-woven perspectives to examine the progress of CCTV documentary post-2011, including (1) the platforms created by China, (2) the internationalisation strategies in terms of the production of content and (3) related industry practices.

First, in 2011, China launched eight domestic documentary channels, among which the CCTV-9, CCTV-10 and Shanghai Documentary Channel being the most important as they each invest over £10 million annually with CCTV-9 significantly higher than the others. Recent statistics[4] reveal that the investment on documentary by the CCTV and by the combination of all regional television stations in China is roughly 9:8. Moreover, the State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) stipulated in October 2013 that from 2014, all mainland-based satellite channels must broadcast at least 30 minutes of Chinese documentaries between 6:00pm and 1:00am each day. The regulation boosts the broadcasting time of documentary programmes in China up by 6,000 hours. Many channels simply source documentary materials from the CCTV. For example, over 100 Chinese documentary production agencies organised a Chinese Documentary Network in late 2013 and recruited 90 terrestrial channels to broadcast daily a 30-minute programme, Documentary of China, produced by the CCTV-9.

With such a huge demand on documentary output instigated by the state, China has quickly become one of the most attractive markets for international broadcasters and documentary-makers all over the world. This is when our attention should turn to the production side of matters.

In addition to in-house production, CCTV has adopted three methods to internationalise and upgrade its documentary profile in recent years, namely procurement from foreign sources, coproduction and joint venture. The advantageous resources, finance and an enormous market potential have empowered the CCTV to be able to target at elite broadcasters as its international partners, such as the BBC, Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

As Steve Macallister, the executive director of the BBC Worldwide — BBC’s commercial arm — has pointed out: ‘BBC Worldwide has conducted business in China for over 20 years’. However it is not until 2008 when the CCTV successfully forged the first collaboration project with the BBC, Wild China, a six-part nature documentary series on the natural history of China. The significance of this project lies in the fact that the CCTV was able to negotiate an equal status with the BBC as a full-fledged co-producer and to reserve its editorial right to the Chinese scripts. The Chinese version of Wild China became the first flagship programme series broadcast on CCTV-9 when it was launched as a professional documentary channel in 2011. Since then, CCTV has secured its position as a strategic collaborator of the BBC. By early 2014, several renowned BBC documentary series are co-produced and/or co-invested with the CCTV-9. For example, Hidden Kingdoms (2014) and Africa (2013), also jointly produced by Discovery Channel and France Televisions, have reached 195 countries and regions. Wonders of Life (2013), involving only the BBC and the CCTV, is presented by physicist Brian Cox to explain how a few fundamental laws of science gave birth to the complex and unique feature of the universe.[5]

Through its partnership with the BBC and other reputable international broadcasters, the CCTV has gained credibility and experiences in documentary-making and established itself as a major player in the international TV documentary industry. As we can see, the topics of many aforementioned mini-series are not necessarily China-related. So what does it mean? Why is it important? This leads to my reflections on some practicalities of the industry.

When Discovery Channel was first established in 1985, it purchased many programmes from the BBC. It took over a decade before Discovery was able to work with the BBC Worldwide as an equal partner and began injecting commercial fund strategically into BBC’s production of public service programming. Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) is one of their earliest successful collaborations. Since then, the partnership has brought to the viewers around the world a series of high quality blue chip[6] factual documentary fest, including The Blue Planet (2001), Planet Earth (2006), Life (2009) and Frozen Planet (2011).

While these documentaries are truly amazing, it cannot be denied that the BBC and Discovery Channel have long become dominant in the factual documentary market. Other European, American and Asian broadcasters have enjoyed little opportunity to compete or to cooperate with the big players in the international arena. Zhang Guoli, director of the Chinese division of the BBC Worldwide, agrees that the situation can be problematic. ‘When the BBC only works with one or two TV companies from the same country, it becomes accustomed to just one market, one viewpoint and one taste’, says Zhang. ‘However the needs of American viewers may be far apart from that of other audiences with different cultural backgrounds. In addition, the funding for the production of high-end factual documentaries today is such that it becomes unviable if the programme does not appeal to multiple markets. In recent years, we have come to realise that without the support of the CCTV, it is quite impossible to complete flagship documentaries that try to explore fascinating but difficult, unknown and universal subjects.’ Zhang believes that the documentaries coproduced by several countries invite input from a global viewpoint. Hence the final product is able to speak to a global audience.[7]

While I am uncertain that there is one hegemonic global viewpoint or one global audience, by positioning itself as an active participant in the international production of blue chip documentaries, CCTV has ensured that a state-approved Chinese perspective will always be included in the formation of a global culture which may shape our views on the world at present or in the future. More importantly, CCTV’s ultimate goals are to increase its own capacity as a world-class documentary producer, broadcaster and commissioner. What are better ways than to learn from the leader of the industry directly and closely? This is when the CCTV will finally be able to produce credible and quality documentaries with Chinese narratives that appeal to a wider audience. Therefore, in my view, this may be where the long-term impact of the Chinese cultural diplomacy and soft power lies.

Dr Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley is a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London and an Associate Fellow of the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham. Image credit: CC by Norma Desmond/Flickr

Notes

[1]Hong, J. and Liu, Y. (2015), ‘Internationalisation of China’s television: History, development and new trends’, in G. Rawnsley and M.Y. Rawnsley (eds), Routledge Handbook of Chinese Media, London: Routledge, forthcoming. See http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415520775/
[2]Rawnsley, G. (2015) ‘Chinese international broadcasting, public diplomacy and soft power’, in Routledge Handbook of Chinese Media.
[3] Cao, Q. (2015) ‘The politics and poetics of television documentary in China’, in Routledge Handbook of Chinese Media.
[4] Unless stated otherwise, all statistics are from Zhang, D.; Hu. Z. et al. (2014) A Research Report on the Development of Chinese Documentary, 2014 (Zhongguo jilupian fazhan yanjiu baogao, 2014), Beijing: Science Publishing (in Chinese).
[5]Yu, M. (2013) ‘CCTV-9’s international collaboration’, Zongyibao, no.17 (in Chinese)
[6]Blue chip documentary refers to the big scale, high-end production of documentary series today that normally involves international collaboration and targets at a global audience. Blue chip documentary usually avoids ‘talking head’ interviews and is rarely presenter-led (there are exceptions, of course). Therefore it is easily reedited and tailored with different voice-over to suit different markets. For further details see Yu, M. (2012) ‘BBC flagship documentary and its strategy’, Chinese Broadcasting and Television (Zhongguo guangbo yingshi), No.471: 47–49 (in Chinese).
[7]Chinese transcription of the CCTV-9 International Coproduction Screening and Workshop, Beijing, 14 August 2013.