Junhao HONG

China’s television industry is a latecomer, by international standards, but it has become an important political and cultural apparatus. Although controlled by the state—as is all mass media in China—television offers a wide variety of programming, both domestic and foreign, to some 1.29 billion viewers, the largest TV audience in the world.

Compared to most industrial countries in the world, China has a much shorter television history. Television was not available until the late 1950s, more than a decade later than in most industrial nations. Since television emerged in China, the medium has experienced various drastic changes and has now become one of the largest and most advanced, sophisticated, and influential television systems in the world.

Short but Convoluted History

The country’s first TV station, Beijing Television, began broadcasting on 1 May 1958. Within just two years, dozens of stations were set up in major cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou. Most stations had to rely on planes, trains, or cars to send tapes and films from one to another.

The first setback for Chinese television came in the early 1960s when the former Soviet Union withdrew economic aid to China. Many TV stations closed. In a short time, the number of stations was reduced from twenty-three to five. The second setback derived from an internal factor, the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976. Beijing Television’s regular telecasting was forced to a halt in January 1967 by the leftists of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by Mao Zedong (1893–1976). All other local stations followed its lead. Television stations were criticized for their bourgeois direction and changed to a new, revolutionary direction as a weapon for class struggle and anti-imperialism, anti-revisionism, and anti-capitalism campaigns both at home and abroad.

Beginning in the late 1970s, and the start of the country’s reform, television became the most rapidly growing medium. On 1 May 1978, Beijing Television changed to China Central Television (CCTV). As China’s only national network, CCTV had the largest audience in the world. From the 1980s through the 1990s, television developed swiftly. The number of TV stations once exceeded 1,000, with one national network, thirty-six provincial and major city networks, and several hundred regional and local networks. The government deregulated the development of television when it became somewhat chaotic in the late 1990s.

Since the early 2000s, China’s television industry has further substantially expanded. By the end of 2006, there were 296 national, provincial, and regional stations; 46 educational stations; and 1,935 local radio/television stations. In addition, there were 44,620 radio-TV transmitting-and-relaying stations and 2.2 million satellite-TV receiving-and-relaying stations. At the same time, China had 400 million TV sets, becoming the country with the most TV sets in the world. Statistically, there were two television sets for each Chinese family. By the end of 2007, the penetration rate of television reached 97 percent, reaching 1.29 billion people. Among households with TV, 40 percent, or 153,246,800 households, had cable TV. Shanghai and Beijing had the highest cable TV penetration rates in the nation at 96 percent and 71 percent. In the same year, households with digital TV reached 26,860,500, which reflected a 112 percent increase from 2006.

Television broadcasting technology has also developed quickly. Most major stations use such technologies as virtual-field production and high definition. CCTV opened its Webcast service in 1996 to a worldwide audience, providing text, audio, and photographic and video images. Digital broadcasting has been set as one of the priorities of China’s National Development Plan. Based on a twenty-year digital television development plan, by 2015 all television programming in China will be transmitted via digital technology.

Ideological Basis

Despite the many changes since the reforms launched in the 1970s, all media is still state owned. Neither privately owned nor foreign-owned television is allowed. Receiving foreign TV programming via satellite is prohibited without government permission. There are no license fees for owning a TV set and no charge for viewing broadcast television. Until the late 1970s, television was not allowed to carry advertising; it was completely financed by the government.

Political theories undergirding the organization and uses of television flow directly from Marxis-Leninist doctrine. Mao embellished Marx’s idea of the importance of the superstructure and ideological state apparatus and Lenin’s concept of the importance of propaganda and media control, stressing that media must be run by the Communist Party and become the party’s loyal eyes, ears, and mouthpiece. The current leadership of the CCP inherited this concept and requires broadcasting to be kept in line with party doctrine and serve the party’s purposes voluntarily, firmly, and appropriately.

Under these guidelines, television is regarded as part of the party’s overall political machine. Television is used, to the greatest extent, by the party and state to impose ideological dominance on society. The party and the central government set the tone of propaganda for television at all levels. Although TV stations provide news, entertainment, and education, television’s first and most important function is to popularize party and government policies and motivate the masses in the construction of Communist ideology.

A tightly controlled administrative system has been used to run television. The CCP is the ultimate owner, manager, and practitioner of television. TV stations are under the dual jurisdiction of the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department and the government’s State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television. The Propaganda Department sets propaganda policies, determines programming content and themes, and issues operational directives. Technological, regulatory, and administrative affairs are generally the concern of the Radio-Television-Film Bureau of the State Council. As media are crucial political organs of the CCP, virtually no independence of media is allowed or envisioned. Except for several years in the 1980s—which were criticized later by the party as the period of “Western liberalization” and “bourgeois spiritual pollution”—neither open and large-scale debates on ideology nor serious criticisms of the party, government policies, or high-ranking officials has been permitted, unless organized by the party to meet certain political needs. The self-censorship policy has been long and extensively used. Routine broadcasting material does not require approval from party authorities, but important editorials, news stories, and sensitive topics all require official endorsement before their dissemination.


Television programming in China consists of six categories: news, documentary and infotainment, variety and entertainment, TV plays, advertising and service, and sports and other programs. In 2007, 14,546,700 hours of TV programming were broadcast, a 7 percent increase over the previous year’s hours. The bulk of programming, 45 percent, was TV dramas and movies, followed by advertising (13 percent), news (12 percent), variety (11 percent), services (10 percent), and entertainment (9 percent).

Before the 1970s, most entertainment programs were old films of revolutionary stories, with occasional live broadcasts of modern operas about model workers, peasants, and soldiers. Newscasts from that era were mostly what the CCP’s official newspaper, The People’s Daily, and official n
ews agency, the Xinhua News Agency, reported. Production capability was low; production quality was poor; equipment and facilities were simple; and broadcasting hours, transmitting scales, and channel selections were limited. Television broadcasted usually three hours a day.

Part of the explosive development of TV since the late 1970s is a result of the CCP’s new move toward openness and reform. Many taboos were eliminated, restrictions lifted, and new production skills adopted. Entertainment programs in the form of TV plays, soap operas, Chinese traditional operas, game shows, and domestic and foreign feature films have become routine. News programs have also changed substantially and expanded enormously. International news coverage and live telecasts of important news events are now often seen in news programs. Educational programs in particular have received special treatment from the government. Production capability has been enhanced as well.

CCTV expanded from two channels in 1978 to sixteen channels in 2006. Channel 1, the main channel, focuses on news; Channel 2, economy and finance; and Channel 3, culture, arts, and music. Channel 4 is dedicated to overseas Chinese and international audiences. Channel 5 shows sports; Channel 6, movies; Channel 7, social programs; and Channel 8, TV plays and series. Channel 9 is an English-language channel that broadcasts twenty-four hours a day, targeting an international audience. Channel 10 focuses on science; Channel 11, Chinese opera; Channel 12, law-related programs; Channel 13, news; Channel 14, children’s programs; and Channel 15, music. Channel 16 is a Spanish-language and French-language channel aimed at audiences in Spanish-speaking and French-speaking nations.

Most provincial and major city networks have also increased the number of their broadcasting channels and offer more programs. In 2006 alone, 546 TV plays with 18,133 episodes were produced. In contrast, during the two decades from 1958 to 1977, only 74 TV plays were produced. TV broadcasting hours have increased considerably as well. In an average week of 1980, 2,018 hours of programs were broadcast. The number went up to 7,698 in 1985, 22,298 in 1990, 83,373 in 2000, and 261,538 in 2006.

Internationalization and Commercialization

The most important indication of the internationalization of China’s television industry is the change in the importing of programming. Before the late 1970s, TV imports were quantitatively limited and ideologically and politically oriented. From the late l950s to the late 1970s, only the national network was authorized to import TV programs. During those years programs were imported almost exclusively from socialist countries, and the content usually concentrated on the Soviet Revolution and the USSR’s socialist economic progress. Few programs were imported from Western countries, and they were restricted only to those that exemplified the principle “Socialism is promising, capitalism is hopeless.”

In the early 1970s, imported programming accounted for less than 1 percent of programming nationwide. That figure jumped to 8 percent in the early 1980s, to 15 percent in the early 1990s, to around 25 percent in 2000, and remained at 20 percent in recent years. Although they still face various kinds of restrictions, central, provincial, regional, and even local television stations are looking to other countries, mostly Western nations, for programming. The government now stipulates that, unless special permission is obtained, no imported programming is allowed to be shown during prime time (7–10:30 p.m.) and that imported programming cannot fill more than 15 percent of prime time.

Another sign of TV’s internationalization is the effort to expand the exporting of China-produced TV programs. Major Chinese TV stations have produced programs for the global market and have even become main programming suppliers of some television stations in other Asian countries. CCTV and a few major city networks have set up offices in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Russia, Egypt, Japan, Hong Kong, Macao, India, Thailand, and Australia to promote business. In addition, CCTV and a few other major Chinese TV stations have established joint-venture businesses with television stations in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania to broadcast programs via satellite. CCTV’s international and English-language channels are now broadcast via China’s own satellite and are available in most countries. In 2006 CCTV alone exported 6,000 episodes, more than 4,000 hours of television programs. CCTV’s Channels 4, 9, and 16 are now watched in eighty-six countries by 68 million household subscribers.

Another significant change in China’s television industry since the reforms is commercialization: the resurrection of advertising on television and its impact on programming. Economic reforms have revived the importance of market forces and the power of advertising. Both foreign and domestic advertising have been resurrected. Since the early 1980s, revenue from advertising has increased at an annual rate of 50 to 60 percent.

By the 1990s television had become the most commercialized and market-oriented medium in China and attracted a large portion of advertising investment from both domestic and foreign clients. For the hundreds of television stations across the country, advertising and other commercial activities now constitute the majority of programming revenue, ranging from 40 percent to 90 percent. All television stations are now supported by advertising revenue.

While media advertising accounts for 70 percent of China’s total advertising expenditure, television advertising alone accounts for 80 percent of total media advertising expenditures. Over the last several years, advertising revenues for almost all other media have been declining, but television advertising has continued to increase. In 2006 advertising revenue for the broadcasting industry reached 527 million yuan (approximately $75 million at the time). Some 453 million yuan was from television advertising revenue, a 12 percent increase from 2005. In 2007 advertising revenue for the broadcasting industry reached 601 million yuan (approximately $86 million). Advertising revenue in the television industry alone reached 519 million yuan, a 15 percent increase from 2006.

The television structure in China is quite different from that in most Western nations, where national networks usually are the biggest advertising revenue makers. In China, by contrast, in 2007 provincial TV stations reaped 57 percent of the total of TV advertising revenues, followed by 21 percent for the regional and county-level TV stations, and only 11 percent for the national networks. Over the last several years the top three commodities of China’s TV advertising have been cosmetics, medicine, and food, occupying 21 percent, 16 percent, and 14 percent of the total television advertising in 2007. The top-ten list of television advertising also included ads for telecommunication devices (mobile phones and computers), Chinese liquors and beverages, entertainment and leisure activities, the service industry (hotels), and transportation (cars and domestic/foreign airlines). This list is quite similar to the top-ten list of television advertising in developed nations, a reflection of China TV’s move toward a Western model.

The telecasting of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games was one of the biggest events not only in China’s TV history but also in the history of world television. More than 4 billion people across the world watched the televised games, a new record in world TV history, surpassing the audience for the 2000 Sydney games (3.4 billion) and the 2004 Athens games (3.9 billion). The Beijing Olympics opening ceremony was said to have hit a record high TV rating: more than 90
percent of TV audiences across the world watched the event. Thanks to the 2008 games, China’s total advertising revenues in 2008 were estimated to have increased 29 percent over 2007 revenues. For CCTV alone, its advertising revenues during the seventeen days of the games were estimated to have reached 2 billion yuan (approximately $300 million). The Beijing Olympics also made many global companies very interested in China’s huge media market. The biggest foreign sponsors of the telecasting of the Beijing Olympics included Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Adidas, and Johnson & Johnson. In 2008, because of the Beijing Olympic Games, Coca-Cola’s advertising expenditure in China increased 24 percent; Visa’s, 30 percent; Kentucky Fried Chicken’s, 39 percent; Adidas’s, 100 percent; and Nike’s, 143 percent.

Internet Viewing

Watching television on a computer or mobile device is increasingly popular in China, as it is in the United States and Western countries. In fact, Westerners looking for their favorite programs sometimes watch pirated versions, in English with Chinese subtitles, on Chinese websites. This unstructured and uncommercialized Internet viewing is even said to have cut into the market for pirate DVDs in China. Volunteer groups download popular U.S. televisions show such 24, American Idol, Survivor, and Battlestar Galactica from BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file-sharing site, immediately after new episodes are broadcast in the United States. They locate closed-captioned English scripts, made for the hearing-impaired, and translate them into Chinese. Perhaps in future a commercial version like the U.S. Hulu.com will compete, but that would be possible only if the Chinese government allowed the distribution of more Western programming.

Future Direction

Under the modernization plan, the open door policy, the transformation from a state economy to a market economy, and the tendency toward lessening controls since the late 1970s, television in China has become a very popular medium, a very technologically advanced broadcast system, and a highly professionally performed service. Television’s function has evolved from a single-purposed one for political and ideological propaganda to a multipurposed one for serving both the party/government and the society/public.

However, by and large, television in China is still a state-owned and party-controlled political and ideological instrument, despite its having evolved to fulfill other purposes. Television, like all other mass media in China, is required to run in the socialist track, but, at the same time, it is forced to operate in a Western way, the capitalist way. This conflict has brought about many unprecedented problems to television.

No signs of change in the character of television are seen for the near future. As long as the country’s political system does not change, the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist doctrine on the media, including television, will not change. This obstacle will not be overcome until fundamental changes in the political system occur. It is certain that television’s internationalization and commercialization will continue, despite fluctuations that may occur as a result of the change of the political climate and the ideological needs of the Communist Party. But it is unlikely in the foreseeable future that television, along with all other media in China, will become an independent social mechanism, nor will it become truly free from the control of the party and government.

Television in China has developed unevenly. For historical and economic reasons, most TV stations in China—especially those that have larger audiences and, therefore, are more influential—are in the eastern coastal areas or central section of the country, places such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Tianjin, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Hunan. For example, in 2007, 22 percent of the total TV advertising revenue was from Beijing alone, 47 percent from the eastern coastal areas, and 21 percent from the central part, whereas only 11 percent was from the western section of the nation, which has more than 50 percent of China’s total geographic area and population. All of the top ten provincial TV stations of China’s television advertising were in the eastern coastal area or central part, with Guangdong first, Jiangsu second, and Shanghai third.

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, China’s television industry has undergone a profound shift toward conglomeration as China aims to become more competitive in the global television arena. New ways of doing business and new technologies will help the television industry thrive and be an important part of Chinese culture.

Further Reading

Chan, J. (1994). Media internationalization in China: Process and tensions. Journal of Communication, 44(3), 70–88.

Hong, Junhao. (1994). The resurrection of advertising in China: Developments, problems, and trends. Asian Survey, 24(4), 70–88.

Hong, Junhao. (1997). Changes in China’s media function in the 1980s: A new model in a new era. In M. Bailie & D. Winseck (Eds.), Democratizing communication: Comparative perspectives on information and power (pp. 288–306). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Hong, Junhao. (1998). The internationalization of television in China: The evolution of ideology, society and media since the reform. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Hong, Junhao. (2000). China’s dual perception of globalization and its reflection on media policies. In G. Wang et al. (Eds.), The new communications landscape: Demystifying media globalization (pp. 70–88). London: Routledge.

Hong, Junhao, Yanmei, L., & Zou Weining. (2008). CCTV in the reform years: Setting up a new model for China’s television. In Ying Zhu & C. Berry (Eds.), TV China: A reader on new media (pp. 40–50). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Huang, Y. (1994). Peaceful evolution: The case of television reform in post-Mao China. Media, Culture, and Society, 16, 217–241.

Lull, J. (1991). China turned on: Television, reform, and resistance. London: Routledge.

Source: Hong, Junhao. (2009). Television. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2212–2216. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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