LETTER FROM CHINA PART TWO:  SEE! SEE! TV! Image

At last, the cure for those people who complain that they have nothing to watch on dozens of television channels. CCTV! All you have to do is go to China. Stay a while. Live there. Work there. Watch TV, or try to. Will it make you feel better about the money you’re throwing away on your cable subscription? It made me feel better. And I don’t even own a TV.

Here’s how: television broadcasting in China incorporates elements of both the East and West, being culturally unique to the People’s Republic while still adopting standards of crumminess accepted the world over.

The national network is CCTV, which runs from CCTV-1 to CCTV-16, often sporting different themes – for example, CCTV-6 is the Movie Channel (where you can watch American nuclear family units speaking with dubbed Chinese accents), while CCTV-9 is the English News Channel (for in-depth reports on the Chinese cigarette lighter industry and other fun topics). In addition to the national network there are a number of different provincial channels that can be picked up over quite a geographical spread.

However, they all broadcast what are apparently the only three shows on Chinese television: people in military uniforms sitting at tables and watching speeches; a presenter with a microphone walking around in front of a small audience sitting on bleachers; and live performances of variety shows or talent quests, it’s hard to tell which. Cartoons screen at any time of the day, with animation so abysmal and primitive that I suspect these are also being filmed live while the artists are still drawing. The most popular of these appears to be China’s answer to Tom and Jerry featuring a blue cat and a mouse. The name of the show, predictably enough, is “Blue Cat and Naughty Mouse.” I’m only guessing that it’s popular because it can be seen everywhere on t-shirts and pencil cases.

Actually, everything in China is either ‘popular’ or ‘famous’, which is why I didn’t believe for a moment that a bizarre-looking cartoon featuring a boy with a big head and a man with a small head was “very popular” in China. The name of the show, in case you haven’t figured it out already, was Small Head Father and Big Head Son.

And then there are the ads. Shrieking, colorful sales pitches delivered through the expedient of beaming, happy faces and much waving-about-of-the-product. Ninety percent of these ads will be for milk drinks, medical supplements, hair products, or mobile phones. Amongst everything else that’s airing, advertisements at least feel comfortably materialistic, as do the abundance of soap operas, both contemporary and historical. The big advantage that soap operas have in China over those of the West is that most of them have got swords, and people jumping out of trees. They also follow the preferred cultural acting style, which is to transplant stage acting to television, though I doubt the performance level gets any worse than on soap operas anywhere else in the world.

I saw the stage acting first-hand when I was once invited to attend a televised variety show celebrating ten years of a local three-channel network (I missed seeing it on TV when it screened a few days later, but was told that it didn’t matter because it would be on again at the same time the next day. And the next day. And the next.) Many of the dramatic interludes featured ordinary folk struggling with hardships and lamenting their lot in life until the heroic local network turned up to their rescue, usually by giving them a free television set. The cast would stand with their hands stapled to their sides throughout most of the performance and then at some key moment one of the girls would drop to her knees and wail something like “Mama!” with such anguish that the audience would break into traditional spontaneous applause.

I soon found out that the easiest way to win the hearts of an audience is to fall out of a wheelchair, look as if you’re 120 years old, be young and beautiful yet still obliged to care for your ailing family, or present any other circumstance which would facilitate the appropriate dropping to the floor and exclamations of “Mama,” a tip I stored away for the next time I found myself in a karaoke bar.

As entertaining as this may be for, oh, all of five minutes, there is also the bonus of seeing broadcasts of bona fide Western shows. Not being a big television watcher, I only ever came across two in three years: “Survivor” and “Teletubbies.” “Survivor” featured a constant narration in Chinese over the Anglo-Saxon whinging, and one can only guess why this show was selected for screening for audiences in China. No doubt the sight of weather-beaten capitalist running dogs eating bugs out of the dirt and stabbing each other in the back every week did their hearts good.

“Teletubbies,” on the other hand, wouldn’t at first glance seem too unusual a broadcasting choice, if not for the fact that it screened at 8 o’clock at night. Was it considered prime time viewing? Did the programmers at CCTV ascribe an Orwellian agenda to the show? It’s possible. The Teletubbies, all happy to march in step and do the same thing despite their individual colors or twirly things on top of their heads, are monitored by a big periscope (and isn’t “CCTV” also an abbreviation for Closed Circuit Television?). They live in a self-contained world beneath an all-seeing sun. They don’t choose what to do but are told and shown by the TV screens in their tummies. Nobody complains. Everybody’s happy. “Teletubbies Bye-Bye!” commands the unseen voice at the end of the show, and the ‘tubbies all obey unquestioningly. Uh-Oh. Bye-bye. Wheeee.

But then why wouldn’t they all hop into bed? It’s not like there’s anything else on worth watching.

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