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New century, new image on Chinese screen
By Kevin Holden (That's Magazine)
Updated: 2005-03-04 10:28

China's largest television broadcaster begins its makeover with an injection of youth. กก

If you are a fairly regular television watcher and frequent any of the China Central Television (CCTV) channels (not hard to do, considering that there are fifteen of them), you may have seen an unusual promo for the CCTV program Tuesday Record Street. A gray, monochromatic city block is invaded by wildly colorful audio speakers blasting music as they spread across the scene like a self-replicating urban artwork. The brainchild of Zhu Tianyi's Helicon Studio, the promo is merely one example of how CCTV is evolving from its origins as a one-way broadcaster of black and white messages to the masses into a vibrant and interactive media giant.

CCTV, long run like a massive state projector to a captive Chinese audience, is focusing on becoming a more cosmopolitan collaborator in the kaleidoscope of images that are being bounced around the globe via satellite and the Internet. To help power its new-century transformation, the titanic but aging CCTV has begun recruiting young designers and directors who have grown up with MTV, satellite television and the Web. Earlier this year, to mark the 85th anniversary of the Chinese youth-led May Fourth Movement, the broadcaster commissioned a young group of artists-turned-animators to create an opening promo for the celebration. Zhu, one of China's best young animation producers, says his small studio worked around the clock to crank out a short promo that would turn heads across the country.

The result, rather than imitating the state by blowing up model youths or workers into larger-than-life heroes, takes a creative twist. Zhu and the co-creators of the May Fourth promo filmed fellow art school graduates - such as MTV artist Zhang Yan and website designer Yan Long - miniaturized them, and transformed them into animated actors to celebrate the spirit of "Everlasting Youth."

"Like Chinese society and culture, CCTV is becoming more diverse and multi-hued, and we're really happy to contribute to that trend," Zhu says. Zhu adds that his Beijing-based animation outfit got its start by producing cartoon-like film shorts and promos for provincial stations that were casting about for a new look in southwestern Guangxi and eastern Anhui.

Zhu, who studied sculpture, painting and design in Beijing before setting up Helicon with two former classmates, says his studio got its break when an animation for a Guangxi program called Folk Songs Show caught the attention of CCTV producers. The promo features two kids who jump from a zooming red airplane and sing as they parachute through the clouds.

"It was forward-looking provincial stations that began experimenting with new programming, cartoons and youth music shows to increase their mass appeal, and that started influencing how China Central Television decided on content," explains Yang Yuqing, a former marketing executive at the state-run Hunan Television.

It was the ability of the arts to effect change that inspired Helicon's Tuesday Record Street promo. Zhu says that the power of music and culture to transform an entire region is a metaphor for the changes now being painted across China and its main broadcaster. Yet he adds, "Injecting color into a city or society depends not only on art, music, and film, but also on the people inside."

To recast its image within China and beyond, CCTV is drawing not only on dynamic, independent content providers, but also on its own best young designers and writers to help script its future. And in the expanding universe of CCTV's programming and plans for the new century, artist Tan Jing is a rising star.

Tan's life and stage designs reflect the quickening pace of CCTV's evolution.

When Tan was born during the "Cultural Revolution" of 1966-76, few Chinese citizens owned a radio (much less a television), contact with foreigners was banned, and the closest thing most people had to a computer was an abacus. As she was growing up, "Television wasn't considered a potential art form," says Tan. Artists who worked at China Central Television were only used to paint stage backdrops for red operas or pageants for peasants and proletarians.

Fast-forward to the present, and world-savvy designers like Tan Jing are being enlisted to help CCTV's march onto the global stage of ideas and images. Tan, who has visited the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Egypt in recent years, says the world's biggest broadcaster now encourages its staff to connect with diverse countries and cultures. Artists like Tan are now being used to inject new colors and creativity into CCTV's broadcasts.

CCTV, along with Beijing Television and a host of other local broadcasters, has also begun to experiment with using foreign reporters for cultural and lifestyle bits as it plans for more foreign language programming in other parts of the world. To mark the new millennium and China's rising role on the new world stage, China Central Television created an English-language channel, CCTV 9, in 2000. The new channel features more diversified reporting, which can be translated back into Chinese for domestic consumption. CCTV's latest move into Western-oriented broadcasting - a channel that alternately provides Spanish and French content - began transmissions in October of 2004.

China's transition into a more market-driven society has also had a profound impact on CCTV's programming practices. While CCTV long considered its role to be that of a medium to mold the masses, "audience ratings are beginning to be used to judge the popularity of every show," says a former British editor who monitors the Chinese media. CCTV's leaders now conduct weekly ratings surveys, and the results are becoming increasingly important in determining future programming.

One of Tan Jing's favorite designs, which she created for CCTV 9, emphasizes the rapid changes that are propelling CCTV into new horizons of transnational transmissions. The image, patterned after Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco "The Creation of Adam," shows two digital hands reaching out toward each other, with the spark of life illuminating the wired planet Earth.

"Satellite television, the Web, and cross-civilization contacts are creating a new world, and I wanted to express that idea in my design," says Tan. "Just as in Michelangelo's day, the world is undergoing a renaissance, and we want to take part in the renewed creation of cultures."

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