WITH TWO 230-METER TOWERS connected by a cantilevered 90-degree row of offices, the Chinese Central Television main building looms impressively on a campus the size of 37 football fields to the east of the Forbidden City. At once postmodern and austere, the near $1 billion Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren design flexes CCTV’s preferential status as the direct platform of the state. To Beijingers, the building is otherwise known as da kucha, or big boxer briefs, for what its two-legged form calls to mind. This is just one image of CCTV offered up by media studies scholar Ying Zhu in Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television. Zhu’s book deftly portrays a complex network that could be said to have its feet planted in two different places: it is paradoxically still a Party organ and now also a for-profit outlet.
The China-born, New York–based Zhu is a media studies scholar with years of experience in the field, affording her the necessary guanxi, or social ties, to connect with prominent names at CCTV and to track regional success stories like Hunan Satellite Television (HSTV). A specialist in contemporary Chinese cinema and media studies, Zhu puts her understanding of Beijing journalism to good use while navigating sensitive topics with the people she interviewed for Two Billion Eyes. Of the one-on-one trust she was able to gain, Zhu writes that her subjects “were surprisingly frank about supporting political reform.” Even the host of CCTV-9’s Dialogue Yang Rui — a known rabble-rouser on the current events program akin to Piers Morgan Tonight — ended up convinced that Zhu “understood what it meant to be practicing media in China.”
CCTV is China’s only national network in a four-tier hierarchy followed by provincial, county, and city levels — a position that translates to unrivaled access under the aegis of the state, but with its share of consequences. More closely scrutinized by both the government and ordinary viewers than any other network in the country, CCTV (sometimes called “Hee-Hee-TV” because of how scrupulously it follows the official line on many issues) has had to appease the market while dealing with a decline in state subsidies since the mid-1990s.
These layering dualities have placed CCTV, Zhu writes, “at the intersection of official discourse and popular discourse, constituting a critical site of negotiation between the two.” It manifests what Zhu calls a quasi-public sphere, which “compels the state to actively cultivate and incorporate public opinion into a more overtly deliberative policy-making process.” She argues that we need to see these elements as comprising the variegated striae of a media landscape too often considered homogenous by international commentators.
Zhu began collecting material for her book in 2008, around the same time that a massive earthquake hit Sichuan and plans for the highly funded Beijing Olympics went into high gear. Each course-changing event provided Zhu a window onto the network, and she in turn uses major events to lay out both a backdrop and a measure of CCTV’s recent evolution. In her interviews, Zhu practices a hybrid of ethnography and investigative journalism. While at certain points she is a full participant in the conversation, counterbalancing others’ opinions with her own views and doubts, she also allows for certain narratives to stand...read more