China's sports TV needs better focus
For a country that has made such remarkable progress in mass communications over the past couple of decades, China still has a great deal to learn about sports television.
Example 1: Last Sunday's China Baseball League championship game was only available on the local channel in Tianjin, despite the fact the first four games of the nail-biting best-of-five series were telecast on CCTV and BTV.
Don't put this down to an oversight by the CBL; the national broadcaster should have taken the initiative to free enough air time to cover the entire series, particularly since many of the players will be representing this country at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The fact American heavyweights NBC, ABC and ESPN2 provided updates on the series while CCTV-5 opted to air a nothing game from the Copa America soccer tournament and BTV filled the slot with a month-old replay of Euro 2004 action only underscores the impression that China's two biggest broadcasters don't have a clue when it comes to relevant sports coverage.
Example 2: A recent half-hour programme on BTV-6 devoted nearly seven minutes to a feature on the culinary secrets of visiting rhythmic gymnasts from India, followed by four minutes of riveting coverage of wei qi (go chess), which to the uninitiated looks like glorified Chinese checkers. Oh yeah, there was also a segment on ... chess!
This was at the same time the NBA and NHL playoffs were heating up, China's national boxing team was slugging it out at the Asian qualifiers, and Formula One officials were preparing to inspect Shanghai's sparkling new race track.
Alas, none of those events got so much as a casual mention on a show that's comically promoted as "covering everything that's topical" in the world of sports.
Example 3: If CCTV International wants Sports Scene to be taken seriously, the network should at least hire folks who know the correct terminology and proper pronunciation for voice-overs.
I'm getting a tad tired of listening to expat voices yap about "grand pricks" auto racing and "points" being "tallied" in baseball "matches." And the embarrassing attempts by some of the talking heads to be "hip" are ludicrous.
Just give us the scores and highlights, and stop fantasizing that Sports Scene is a stepping stone to MTV, okay?
So that's my rant. But don't get the wrong idea - some of China's sports TV is both entertaining and informative, even if you don't speak the language.
Championship Boxing on CCTV-5 on Sunday mornings is a fine example. There's great chemistry between the three hosts, and the production standards - both on the foreign feeds and the in-studio stuff - are superb. Likewise, CCTV's early-morning exercise show featuring a quartet of gorgeous dancers is upbeat and innovatively shot. The fascinating China-produced retrospective on the Olympics currently enjoying nationwide airplay has also been a welcome respite from the usual diet of Third World soccer and European tennis.
All of these offer ample proof that creativity and high production values are the cornerstones of topnotch sports programming.
Chinese TV does a marvelous job covering relatively static sports like table tennis, badminton, boxing and billiards. But when it comes to capturing the "coast-to-coast" action of soccer or basketball or the full-field activity of baseball or flag football, the production quality plummets.
Ditto for the myriad of national and local round-up programmes. A few, like G-Sports in Shanghai and the late-night wrap on Tianjin TV offer well-planned, diverse and topical coverage. But most - CCTV International's Sports Scene being the worst offender - are numbingly predictable.
With the 2008 Beijing Olympics on the horizon it will be interesting to see who emerges as the standard-bearer for China's sports programming.
Considering the current state of the TV landscape it won't take much to rise above the pack. But as 2008 draws closer, hanging on to that status might prove more difficult.