Dispatches From Beijing

You Think NBC Is Bad? You Haven't Seen CCTV.
Scenes from the Olympics.
Aug. 14 2008 1:15 PM

Dispatches From Beijing

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Beijing 2008 Olympics on Big Screen TV. Click to expand.

To say that the airwaves are saturated with Olympics coverage here doesn't quite capture the feeling. Several of China Central Television's channels, as well as the local Beijing and other provincial channels, have given themselves over to 24/7 coverage of the games. Weeks before Friday's Opening Ceremony, we'd already seen endless rebroadcasts of the monthslong torch relay. Watch Torchbearer 61, a pudgy local government official, pass the torch to Torchbearer 62, a tall gangly European man from the United Nations! See the torch in the streets of Chengdu! And Tianjin! And in the outer Beijing Suburbs! And in Tianjin—again!

Now that the games have actually started, a viewer can find live broadcasts of everything from archery to volleyball all day long. Television anchors are endlessly cuing up musical montages of Chinese gold medal performances in weightlifting, shooting, gymnastics, and diving. When not broadcasting events, Chinese programmers are filling the airwaves with features such as "Mothers Who Are Also Olympic Competitors" and "Kids Who Have Shaved the Olympics Logo Into Their Heads." Enthusiastic coverage is of course not unique to the Chinese—I remember watching my share of slo-mo U.S. medalist montages set to Whitney Houston's "One Moment in Time." But what's on television in China right now shows what happens when you combine tight state control with typically overwrought, patriotic sports coverage. CCTV is like NBC on steroids … and growth hormone, and EPO, and albuterol.

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Having come to Beijing with my reporter husband (who's been scrambling from venue to venue, pulling stories together), my elderly, mobility-impaired parents, and a toddler who takes long naps in the afternoons, let's just say that I've had a lot of downtime in front of my Beijing boob tube. If you're going to rely on CCTV to bring you your Olympics, you've got to care about the Chinese teams. This, actually, is not a huge problem for me. I am an American, but I've rooted for the Chinese in Olympic sports since I was 12, when China sent its first full team to the Los Angeles Olympics. (Please don't revoke my citizenship.) I like to root for the underdog, and in 1984, the Chinese were the underdog against the dominant Americans, who racked up gold medal after gold medal in the wake of the Soviet boycott and were breathlessly lionized for it. As a Chinese-American kid, seeing people who looked like me win gold was inspiring. I fell in love with Li Ning, the gymnast who took home six medals that summer, so I was thrilled to see my seventh-grade crush, still looking fit and adorable at 45, flying around the circumference of the Bird's Nest to light the Olympic cauldron last week.

The other morning, even though we had beach volleyball tickets, the entire family decided to stay in and watch the men's gymnastics finals. The Chinese men were heavily favored—we didn't want to miss it. A few minutes in, we began to wish we were watching back home. "Where are the up-close-and-personal segments?" my sister asked. Sure, there was a bit of commentary, but none of the polish and packaging that you'd get from the folks at NBC. Not much history or background on the contestants beyond where in China they were born. And certainly no visits to hometowns and no proud, teary-eyed parents. Sure, these stories of sacrifice, injury, and adversity are cheesy, but they serve a necessary function, allowing you to identify with athletes whom you've never heard of before and probably won't hear from again. To find out more about China's top gymnast, Yang Wei, I had to go to the U.S. news sites for a biography.

Instead of soft-focus profiles, what you get from CCTV is raw, one-sided footage. Predictably, the cameras were trained exclusively on the Chinese gymnasts. During the early rotations, when the Chinese unexpectedly found themselves in fifth place, CCTV broadcast little or no footage of the teams in first, second, third, and fourth. Instead, even as the Chinese gymnasts waited for their scores, which often took several minutes, and other competitors were performing, the CCTV cameras stayed with them as they sat doing nothing. To fill the air, commentators offered thoughts such as "the team seems really tight. They really need to open up 100 percent. If they open up 100 percent, they will perform better." But we had no idea how well the other teams were performing. "Let's see some Americans!" my sister yelled.

It was frustrating. While NBC is almost always U.S.-focused, they at least know that minutes spent focusing on an athlete waiting for a score does not make for good TV. They know how to tell a story, and that a competition needs competitors. That's the problem with taking away the free market: Any self-respecting, ratings-oriented broadcaster would have cut away to fit in somebody else's vault.

But CCTV couldn't bear to look away from its own team yesterday. It was a reminder that, at the end of the day, it's still a large cog in a giant propaganda machine. NBC is patriotic because patriotism sells; CCTV is patriotic because patriotism is the law. Telling a story is not CCTV's priority; it's conveying the glory of China and the Chinese regime. That's a lot less fun to watch than a sporting event.

Frustrations aside, the propaganda machine does kick up some more benign kitsch. My easy-listening heart warms each time I see "Beijing Welcomes You," a seven-minute song that seems to play on a continuous loop at certain times of the day. The video shows 100 of Greater China's pop stars singing a slightly saccharine, yet totally infectious, song celebrating the arrival of the games—who wouldn't be moved by the great Jackie Chan, standing on the Great Wall, turning to face the camera and reaching out his arms as he belts in Mandarin, "Beijing welcomes you. We've opened up our world to you."

June Shih is a lawyer and former Beijinger.

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