China Media Monitor Through the Years

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Media industry development, history, CMM-I

As CMM-I prepares to launch its new CMM Headlines service, we take a look back at some of the stories that defined the first year of publication, a time when we delivered our news analysis on analogue channels via fax and dial-up modems, but also a seminal year that revealed some of the early developments that we can trace right through to today and the biggest digital multi-media market in the world.

CMM-I first launched its China Media Monitor as a subscription service at the Sichuan TV Festival in September 1997. Developed originally as an in-house service for consultancy clients, it was the first independent B2B news source to focus on analyzing the fast developing Chinese media industry and it is the only publication to continuously track all the major changes since that time.

Just how far things have come is clear from a review of the major stories from that year. Indeed, the first ever China Media Monitor reported that Chinese peasants were still busy saving up for their first ever black & white TV set with 1996 sales reaching 12.5 million units. The same year saw the introduction to China of a new home entertainment disc format called DVD, thus defining the starting point for the likely 15 year business cycle for that generation of technology in major cities. That said, of course, we can rely on countryside sales to keep rising for a few years yet!

1997 also saw a number of meaningful production related breakthroughs, including China's first ever 3D animation project, Supercop in Space, as well as the first CCTV drama co-productions with Singapore and Hong Kong. We also reported on China's first ever international pre-sales agreement, a brand new financing concept that had producers at Beijing TV Arts Center jumping for joy. Meanwhile, Shanghai Paradise Film & TV Group became the first mainland-based film and TV production company to have its application for a domestic listing approved.

The big political news of the year was the hand back of Hong Kong and, in addition to several stories relating to coverage of the historic event and productions to celebrate the occasion, we also covered news that Hong Kong-based broadcasters were to receive limited re-broadcasts in southern Guangdong province. With HK terrestrials already receiving involuntary "spill over", Phoenix TV was the first to announce its addition to Guangdong cable nets and other Mandarin language channels were to follow. It is worth noting that no further breakthroughs in domestic distribution of foreign channels have been made in the last twelve years.

Another major news story from 1997 was the confirmation by central authorities of the operating license for a new ratings enterprise called CSM. A joint-venture between TNS and CCTV-owned CVSC, the fledgling operator entered into a fierce battle with AC Nielsen to become the sole ratings provider for China, a battle it finally won at the end of 2008 when Nielsen closed its ratings service on the mainland. A long war, but one that was certainly worth winning. In 1997, P&G, with its reliance on measurements (still considered strange by many local advertisers at the time) was already dominating the adspend chart.

1997 was also the year that we saw the first moves towards the emergence of today's consolidated state-owned regional media groups when Jiangsu province boldly announced the closure or merger of 50% of the province's radio, television and cable TV stations by the following year.

Alongside pre-WTO efforts to consolidate domestic assets, CMM reported on a number of bold projects initiated by hungry foreigners that promised so much, but ended up as case studies in over-exuberance. Among the notable examples was Singapore-based Channel KTV which announced its target to reach a quarter of China's cable TV homes by 2000 and Beijing-based Max Vision which completed a deal for exclusive rights to re-transmit horse races on Chinese television.

1997 was also the year China started talking about relaxing limits on foreign ownership of movie complexes, selecting Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou as pilot cities. At the time, we reported that US film companies Warner and Disney were among foreign companies to express interest in investing in cinema reconstruction in China. Warner took the plunge some years later, but withdrew from the business in 2006, citing government interference. The film sector, of course, is now one of the biggest success stories in Chinese media. Another Hollywood branded project announcing its premature arrival in 1997 was MGM Gold, a 24-hour entertainment channel that sank without trace.

Another Hong Kong-based channel which thought it had "cracked" the mainland back in 1997 was Robert Chua's China Entertainment Television Broadcast Ltd (CETV), which released news that a consortium of mainland enterprises would buy an 80% stake in the HK-based satellite broadcaster. In a fatal move, CETV announced that the then CCTV President would join the Board of Directors upon his retirement. By the end of the year, Chua was announcing that CETV would have to cease operations early in the New Year unless new investors could be found.

Another frequent component of the China Media Monitor is the story of the outlandish project, the venture that seems doomed before it starts. In 1997, we reported on an unusual advertising deal cooked up by Beijing TV (BTV) and Phoenix TV in which both broadcasters offered advertisers a three-for-two discount deal with free extra primetime repeats when booking at least one 30 second spot on both networks. As we noted at the time, "the offer has apparently not had many takers and BTV has indicated that it is unlikely to enter into such agreements in the future. It is unclear what prompted the agreement in the first place".

These examples show how things have changed and also how they have not. In terms of policy and regulation, the same rules apply. From next week, CMM Headlines are sure to still carry stories on the release of politically motivated productions around historic dates and China will continue to try to influence foreign companies to become more Chinese. In 1997, China was urging Western advertisers to promote a Communist Party campaign for socialist ethics, arguing that foreign advertisers should produce public welfare announcements promoting the latest spiritual civilization campaign. Although the entreaties are more subtle these days, there is less need for public government intervention since foreign companies have learned quickly that they too are meant to make 'spiritual civilization contributions' and tend to do just enough to avoid getting collared.

While the new CMM Headlines service is designed to better meet the demands of multi-tasking executives who require fast and accurate information in concise formats that suit their mobile lives, the CMM Archives have grown into an unrivalled depository of knowledge about the history of modern media development in China.

So, if you need to track the developments in certain sectors or trace the growth of a specific company or if you just want to avoid all the previous mistakes made in the name of progress, feel free to contact us about accessing the CMM Archives. We will leave you with a selection of further indicative headlines from the bumper year of 1997. 

PLAN TO CONTROL FINANCIAL NEWS DROPPED - China has made an unequivocal commitment to abandon a controversial plan to force all foreign financial news agencies to distribute information through China's government-owned wire service, according to a US trade official.

WOWOW CHANNEL IN THE DOGHOUSE - Japan Satellite Broadcasting Inc, broadcaster of the popular WoWow movie and sports channel, announced on June 19 that Shanghai authorities had enacted a ban on the company's broadcasts because of questions over copyrights and program content.

SHANGHAI RFT ANNOUNCES CAPS ON TV DRAMA PRICES - The Shanghai RFT announced in late June that the price for domestically produced television drama episodes purchased by Shanghai TV and Oriental TV must not exceed RMB20,000 (US$2,410) without special permission from the bureau.

APPLIANCE GIANTS SMOKE PEACE PIPE - 68 leading domestic appliance manufacturers have agreed not to rubbish each other's name and products in advertising campaigns by putting their signatures to the China Home Appliance Industry Civilized Competition Accord, which will take effect on October 1.

MGM OWNER ALLEGES CLINTON, JIANG WANTED MOVIE OPENING DELAYED - US President Bill Clinton persuaded Hollywood studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) to delay the US release of its latest film Red Corner until after last week's summit with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, claimed an MGM owner last Thursday.

MICROSOFT LOSES AD LAWSUIT IN BEIJING - Microsoft (China) was ordered by a Beijing court on March 18 to compensate Sangxia Advertisement Co RMB200,000 (US$24,000) for copyright infringement after its draft design of a Microsoft commercial had appeared in newspapers without permission.

CHINA REPORTS A-V PIRACY SENTENCING - Two managers at Suzhou Baodie Compact Disk Company in Jiangsu have been sentenced to 17 and 11 years' jail by the Supreme People's Court. The two masterminded the piracy of 3.13 million CDs and VCDs which generated illicit sales of RMB12 million (US$1.45 million).

BTV SUES HK MAGAZINE - Beijing TV has filed a writ against Hong Kong's Front-Line magazine which it claims has libeled one of its leading presenters, damaged BTV's image and cost the station more than US$600,000 in lost advertising revenue after it published an article about Open Your Heart presenter Ms. Du Yu.

BTV HOSTESS WINS PERSONAL DAMAGES - BTV former chat show hostess Du Yu has been awarded HK$150,000 (US$19,500) in personal damages by the Hong Kong High Court, which found Hong Kong magazine Front Line guilty of libel as charged. (see CMM, September 8, 1997). Miss Du has donated the money to a Children's Welfare Unit.

CITY-LEVEL TV STATION "AUCTION KING" DEFAULTS - The People's Intermediate Court of Weifang City in Shandong is currently investigating last year's winner of its city TV station "King of Auction" title after the Weifang Taiji Group failed to make any of its monthly payments.

JIANG WEN TO COURT FOR ALLEGED BREACH OF CONTRACT? - Leading Chinese actor Jiang Wen, famous for his contribution to some of China's most acclaimed movies and the hit series Beijngers in New York, is being sued by Shenyang Outer Space Group, which counts leading liquor advertiser Qinchi Liquor among its shareholders, for alleged breach of contract.

CETV BOSS CHUA RECEIVES ANOTHER MAINLAND HONOR - China Entertainment TV channel owner, Robert Chua, has been named guest professor of Nanjing University's faculty of news and media studies. The honor, presented on July 3 by NU president Professor Jiang Shusheng, was in recognition of Chua's achievements in the media industry of the People's Republic of China.

MURDOCH TO BEAM PARTY PROPAGANDA TO THE WORLD - CMM has learned from previously reliable Chinese sources that global media magnate Rupert Murdoch's latest attempt to break into the China market involves News Corp acting as a key component in the Chinese Communist Party's plans to broadcast propaganda to viewers in the Americas and Europe.

GARLIC ADS LEAVE PLEASANT AFTERTASTE - From May 27, CCTV will run a one month series of garlic advertisements paid for by the local government of Jinxiang county in Shandong. The ads will be shown on CCTV-2, the business and economics channel and CCTV-4, the international channel.