China Made Your TV. Can It Make Your TV Shows?

Interview

Friday, February 03, 2012

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama reminded us of China’s turbocharged economy outstripping our own. But when it comes to the global culture war for hearts and minds, the United States remains the unrivaled superpower. For now.

If China can make iPads and televisions, why can’t it make the content to fill them? Last month, President Hu Jintao announced that his government was investing heavily in homegrown, exportable cultural programming. And yet, just days later, the government shut down two-thirds of its domestic satellite television shows — many of them frothy variety shows and reality programs — for undermining Chinese values. “Culture is ultimately the clashing and then the adoption of new ideas," says Carlos Tejada of The Wall Street Journal. "The Chinese government’s control of the media is simply opposed to that.”

Tejada, the Journal's China editor based in Beijing, tells Kurt Andersen that the government took action to bolster its national broadcaster CCTV against more independent regional networks. He points to CCTV's televised gala celebrating the Chinese New Year, which China would like to make an Oscars-like international event, as an example of how government programming comes up short. “It's one of the most boring things I've ever seen," Tejada says. "A lot of cameras focusing on important people in the audience. It’s really a snoozefest.”

Shi Tao, a producer with Beijing Television, said that a televised celebration of Chinese culture has the potential to reach international markets if broadcasters will meet their audiences halfway. “Western audiences will never watch the galas unless they become more international,” he predicts. “If we produce the gala in New York City or San Francisco, bring over Chinese stars and have them perform with the local superstars who live there, then American broadcasters will buy it."

Directors like Zhang Yimou are popular in Western art houses, but if Beijing wants China's movie industry to rival Hollywood, says Tejada, it must allow filmmakers to tackle more controversial themes. “If they’re going to create their own version of Avatar, they need to create their version of The Searchers first. This is a vibrant, interesting, fast-growing, exciting place. All the government has to do is take its hands off.”

 

Video: Hunan Satellite TV’s Spring Festival Gala

Tejada calls CCTV's official gala a "snoozefest" compared to Hunan Satellite TV's broadcast, which featured Shaquille O'Neal kung-fu fighting with children. "[It was] entertaining and funny, and that’s exactly what the central government doesn't want," he says, "eyeballs looking away from the national broadcaster."

    Music Playlist
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Produced by:

Derek John

Contributors:

Jocelyn Ford

Comments [4]

JJ dela Cruz from East Village

One way to figure out if Chinese tv shows and movies ever going to become staples of our cultural diet is to look at what has come out of Hong Kong and even Taiwan in the past few years. Has any of their television or cinema been successfully exported to the USA? Not quite.

Why? It's because Chinese people are not white.

It's a well-known fact that American producers and studios are reluctant to greenlight movies without white people as the principal characters. The only outlier is Will Smith. With regard to Asian movies with Asian faces, distributors are reluctant to put their resources behind them unless they fall into the stereotypical kung fu chopsocky category, thereby perpetuating the status of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners.

The Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs was successful in Hong Kong, but the only way it could be exported here was if they remade the film with the pretty white faces of Leo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Mark Wahlberg, etc.

In the martial arts fantasy The Last Airbender, all the Asian characters were cast by white actors, with the exception of the villain, who was portrayed by Slumdog Millionaire's Dev Patel.

The 2008 film "21" was about the true story of kids from MIT who hacked a blackjack algorithm. In real life, those kids were Asian American, and the reason why they were able to fly under the radar is because casino officials assumed they were among the many young wealthy foreigners who threw lots of money around at the high stakes tables. They couldn't have done that if they were white. But when the film was made, not only did producers go to great lengths to make the main characters white (imported from England!), they even hired a dialect coach to help London-born Jim Sturgess speak with an American accent. They wouldn't have needed a dialect coach if they had simply cast Asian American actors such as John Cho, Steven Yeun or Aaron Yoo as the main characters.

I get that filmmaking is just like any other business in which producers want to mitigate risk. If having non-white characters in your movie is risky, then you have every right to eliminate them from your productions. You want characters to which your audiences can relate, right? Americans can't relate to Asian faces on the screen...

So how is it that Jim Cameron's Avatar, the highest-grossing movie of all time, was about a bunch of blue aliens with whom audiences related, sympathized with, and cheered for?

Feb. 06 2012 06:56 PM
Juchechosunmanse

Geez, what disgusting lip service Tajada was making. USA! USA! USA! Eww! "Most boring" thing he has ever seen? What the hell does he know as a clueless, condescending, judgemental westerner? Just because he thinks it is boring, it is boring to everyone? Who does Tajada think he is?? The Chinese New Year gala has the CHINESE audience, not the American audience like this Carlos Tajada guy in mind.

And for Kurt Anderson to suggest that Zhang Yimou's most recent movie is about "evil Chinese, good Chinese" is absolutely pathetic. What kind of nuance did "Saving Private Ryan" has? Wasn't it a patriotic feel-good American movie that sought to portray heroic Americans and evil Germans?? And what kind of nuance do you want, Tajada and Anderson for a movie that centers on the invading Japanese army killing 300,000 Chinese civilians? Where were the good Japanese?? So it is OK for you guys to propagate "a good German is a dead German", yet it is not OK for a Chinese movie to stay true to the historical event that you could careless about?? Shame on you Tajada and Anderson!

Western bias will never go away. Whatever.

Feb. 05 2012 02:33 PM
Ernie Falvo

I am 82 years old and just discovered 360! I enjoy a good hot bath and listen to Public radio while relaxing! You have inspired me to write my timeline. "Wish me Luck!

Regards, ernie falvo

Feb. 04 2012 05:45 PM
m. gil

Shaolin Soccer, the import version. Laughed so hard I cried.

Feb. 04 2012 02:27 PM

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