Living Revolution | Television in China

History and role of broadcasting in 1920s-1940s (see radio).

1953-1956

In 1953, representatives from China visit the USSR and Czechoslovakia to study television technologies.

In 1955, the Chinese Central Broadcasting Bureau proposes the establishment of China's first television station in Beijing. Zhou Enlai adopts the proposal, stating that China's television industry should be part of the "Five-Year Culture and Education Plan." Television's goals are propaganda, education, and cultural enrichment.

Experiments in TV broadcasting begin by 1956. Competition with Taiwan spurs development.

1958

Beijing TV Station (later renamed China Central Television Station, or CCTV, in 1978) begins broadcasting on May 1, 1958. The first broadcast includes a 10 minute report on Labor Day; model workers report on production outputs; a documentary called "Go to the Countryside" shows Communist officials working with farmers; other segments include cultural programs, dance and poetry readings, and a Soviet program on "Television."

There was only one channel, which went on the air a few times a week, for two to three hours beginning at 7:00 PM. The black-and-white broadcasts consisted of news, documentaries, entertainment and educational materials, and reached only the Beijing area. Initially, there were only 50 television sets, for use by government officials.

The first news item produced by the Beijing TV Station, airing on May 15, was a report on China's success in making its own cars. Its first newsreel covered the Red Flag, the Party's theoretical journal. News consisted mostly of still photos, text, and talking heads, along with news documentaries.

TV dramas were also produced, with heavy political tones -- "A Bite of Cabbage Cake" contrasted life under the Nationalists before 1949 with life under the Communists. It was broadcast live on June 15, 1958.

On October 1, the National Day parade and celebration in Beijing was broadcast.

The Shanghai TV station begins broadcasting in October; over the next two years, sixteen provinces would set up TV stations (this number would double by 1975; there were 202 stations by 1985, and 980 by 2000). Between 1958 and 1965, approximately 26,000 TV sets would be produced and sold. Private ownership, however, remains rare; television viewing is more of a collective activity at work units.

1966

With the Cultural Revolution, China's TV service comes to a standstill. Beijing TV Station announced:

In answer to Chairman Mao's call that "you people should be concerned about the important affairs of our country and should carry out the Great Cultural Revolution to its full extent," we have decided to launch a general, all-out offensive on a tiny handful of inner-Party power holders who have been taking the capitalist road. As a result, from January 3, 1967 on, this station will suspend normal broadcasting service except on important matters and occasions.

TV stations were under tight control: Between 1967 and 1976, the only so-called "entertainment programs" shown on Chinese television were eight revolutionary model operas. A British broadcaster, who happened to visit China in 1970, found, much to his surprise, that within a 26-minute principal evening news broadcast by the Beijing TV Station, 18 minutes were devoted to rolling captions of Chairman Mao's quotations against a background of music praising Mao.

TV broadcasts started at 7 p.m. with Mao's portrait on the screen and the sound of The East Is Red, China's unofficial national anthem. These were followed by newscasts of such topics as commemoration of heroes, the work of educated youth in a remote village, reception of foreign visitors by the Chinese leaders, and the heroic struggle of the North Vietnamese. Next came revolutionary ballet and films, usually old Chinese movies about the anti-Japanese war or the war waged by the Communist Party against the Nationalists. At 10:30 p.m., the station signed off.

1978

China has less than 1 television set per 100 people.

Beijing Television (Beijing TV Station) is renamed China Central Television (CCTV).

1979

The first commercial appears on Shanghai TV in January.

1983

CCTV's annual Spring Festival Gala premieres; it remains the most popular program on Chinese television.

1987

There are now 10.7 television sets per 100 people.

1988

River Elegy, a controversial documentary series, airs. (See History for the Masses for more on River Elegy and other television documentaries.)

1992

19.5 television sets per 100 people.

1994

CCTV makes prime-time advertising slots available.

1996

25 television sets per 100 people.

2002

The total television audience is 1.15 billion. By 2005, 94.4% of the population has television access.


"Broadcasting and Politics: Chinese television in the Mao Era, 1958-1976," by Yu Huangxu, Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, Oct. 1997.

China's Window on the World - TV News, Social Knowledge and International Spectacles, Tsan-kuo Chang with Jian Wang and Yanru Chen (NJ: Hampton Press, Inc., 2002).

A History of Chinese Television, Z. Z. Guo (Beijing: Chinese People's University Press, 1991).

TV China, edited by Ying Zhu and Chris Berry (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009).


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