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Chinese TV industry requires quality shows in new media era

YAN MEI, HE TIANPING | 2017-07-10 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

In the long run, the industry is still quite promising. Compared to printed media, the difficulties the TV industry faces are not only reversible but also present important opportunities for transformation.

The history of China’s television industry dates back to the earliest days of the People’s Republic of China. In 1954, the State Council issued an instruction to encourage the development of the industry. Four years later, China produced the first batch of black-and-white TV sets, China’s first TV station was founded in Beijing, and China’s first TV series aired.

After the reform and opening up, the Chinese TV industry saw unprecedented growth, and by 1983, central, provincial, regional and county-level TV stations had been established. That year, the Spring Festival Gala, which would become a beloved annual tradition, was staged for the first time. After 60 years of development, the TV industry has become the top form of media in China.
However, the emergence of new media and the restructuring of traditional media threaten the industry, prompting many to speculate that it is dying.

In this light, it is necessary to explore how the “living room culture” centered on the television has been redefined by the internet and whether the industry is truly heading toward extinction.


Tough winter period
In the 1980s, televisions in China had a great social impact, but these days, new media is starting to usurp the medium’s past glory.

In the past five years, only viewers over the age of 55 have remained loyal, while all other age groups cut their TV time to varying degrees. In 2016, China’s television viewing time per capita fell to a record low of about 152 minutes a day. At the same time, the amount of time people spend online has been rising year-on-year, reflecting the fact that TV viewers have been diverted to other channels.

TV networks are no longer the sole source for audio-visual content. The internet and mobile platforms provide a richer variety of choices for content distribution. Thus, the good old days have gone for traditional TV advertisements both in terms of volume and scale. In 2016, TV advertisements dropped 3.7 percent compared to the previous year and the length of advertisements also decreased by 4.4 percent. There is no doubt that the downward trend of China’s TV industry has become more prominent.

On the one hand, the output of TV content has continued to grow rapidly in the past few years, the scale of advertising revenue reached 100 billion yuan and television remains one of the primary forms of media. On the other hand, the industry is overwhelmed by a series of internal problems, such as the diffusion of channel resources, weak advertising operations and aging audiences.

It seems that the industry is aging with its audience. It is not only trapped in the short-term crisis of declining rate of TV sets in use but also affected by the long-term trend of an audience that is losing interest. Transformation is urgently needed to adapt to the current media environment.

In the new media era, people’s viewing behaviors are largely altered by the fragmentation of time, the shift of scenes, and the diversification of terminals. All these are challenging the basic logic of television transmission. It is evident that nowadays a majority of people use mobile phones more frequently and are deeply attached to digital devices.


Due to difficulties of the industry, some assert that TV is dying. In reality, though, the progress of the media industry follows the logic of evolution rather than replacement. To this end, the history of mass media could provide concrete evidence. The either-or logic is not applicable to an assessment of the TV industry.

First, we need to better understand the social function of television. In the specific social and historical context, the Chinese TV industry has dual significance. It is a means of communication, but it also represents a cultural ritual. Though its former function has been weakened in the new media era, its latter role still carries powerful emotional strength.

It is true that the one-way and linear communication mode of TV is at a disadvantage in today’s world, but the concentration of television communication makes it easier for people to accumulate emotions and thus to create “social capital,” meaning that television provides a constant stream of topics for new media.

In a way, living room culture is still working today. More importantly, as long as family culture exists, television, as a form of cultural ritual of family interactions, will survive beyond its role as a content provider.

Second, we need to further ponder the problem of TV advertisements. Admittedly, the decline of TV advertising is an indisputable fact and the profitability of television transmission has been questioned, but such a crisis is not confined to the TV industry.

In fact, the media industry, including the internet and the mobile internet, has experienced some degree of advertising decline over the past two years, which is associated with the overall socioeconomic environment. Though capital flow into the cultural industry seems to be accelerating, bubbles have also begun to surface. Therefore, the market needs to cool down and return to rationality, thus forming a more appropriate and prudent capital environment.

Last, we need to clarify the definition of television. As technology progresses, maybe someday TV sets will disappear, but the content will hardly be replaced. Indeed, the more convenient small screens have exposed the limitations of the fixed living room TV sets. However, television, as a supplier of fine audio-visual content, will not vanish simply because of the changing channel of communication.

In the long run, the industry is still quite promising. Compared to printed media, the difficulties the TV industry faces are not only reversible but also present important opportunities for transformation.


Ride with the trend
Going forward, the Chinese TV industry faces a long and tough battle. From the perspective of media evolution, it needs to follow the survival logic of current media, which is to say it must make up for its shortcomings and reinforce its competitive advantages.

On the one hand, an effective path for TV development to overcome its shortcomings is model transformation. Media integration is not new and has been regarded vital to the transformation of traditional media in recent years.

However, it should be pointed out that in the process of integration, too much focus has been put on implementation, but to a large extent, attitudes have been ignored, meaning that traditional media mostly consider the interactive relationship with new media as a “forced change” rather than something that is “positively accepted.” The collaboration between traditional TV stations and new media will further facilitate the integration and transformation of audio-visual media.

On the other hand, to achieve long-term development, the industry must sharpen its competitive edges. Once practitioners said: “The core competitiveness of TV industry is its people who have professional ethics and can produce high-quality programs, especially grand galas.” However, in order to catch up with new media, the Chinese TV industry sometimes loses itself in expanding transmission channels, but often overlooks that its core advantage lies in producing fine content.
After all, no matter how communication environment changes, high-quality content will remain the basis of television. If it can consistently produce high-quality audio-visual content, it will only be a matter of time for the industry to overcome its transmission disadvantage.

In the internet era, it is easy to get lost, but the scary part is to lose confidence in producing excellent programs. Only when the TV industry insists on producing fine content can its tough winter period finally come to an end.


Yan Mei and He Tianping are from the School of Journalism at Renmin University of China.