Anchors away

CCTV news programme to try a rethink?

Anchors away

Luo Jing: now deceased

Newscasters are supposed to read the headlines rather than to make them, so recent goings-on at state broadcaster CCTV have been a break with the reporting routine.

Last week we mentioned the case of a Miss Zhang, a CCTV reporter tricked into amorous activity by a pretend spymaster.

This week the world of espionage is again higher profile than it would like, with news that Fang Jing, the host of the channel’s military programme Defence Watch, was being accused in the media of spying for Taiwan.

Fang denied the allegations, made by a fellow CCTV presenter Zhou Yi Jun. After a brief disappearance from public view she reappeared this week, according to the Beijing Times. Zhou has since backtracked and Fang has been exonerated.

A more serious headline was that China’s best known news anchor had died of lung cancer.

Luo Jing, who was only 48, anchored the channel’s most viewed programme, Xinwen Lianbo (News Broadcast) for two decades, and did so with authority and an appropriately stiff, expressionless delivery.

The thirty-minute programme has become a national institution since first airing in 1978 and is religiously broadcast at 7pm across China’s various national and provincial channels.

But the format of the programme has been virtually unchanged since its inception. The first 10 minutes reports on the activities of the leadership, the next 10 covers wider domestic news and the final segment turns to international topics.

After 20 years in the job, Luo’s face was as familiar to the average Chinese as a bowl of congee, so the show is not going to be quite the same without him.

But it also seems that the Xinwen Lianbo producers are thinking about more than a new anchor: the show’s formula is under review too. They seem to have conceded that the current format encourages a rather parochial outlook, in which major global events fail to make the opening headlines – for example, an event as earth-shattering as 9/11 couldn’t be covered until the 21st minute.

The programme also treads a path that looks a little too worn. Chinese newspapers forecast that we can expect more ‘human-interest’ segments from the show in future, as well as (potentially) more critical reportage. The People’s Daily says magnanimously that CCTV is looking “to bend down to satisfy the taste of the general public”.

Some bending down is in order. Xinwen Lianbo audience share has fallen from more than 50% of households a decade ago to less than 6% today, says CSM Media Research, which surveyed 35 cities from January to May.

Nonetheless, the China Daily notes, Xinwen Lianbo still enjoys an audience of 73 million people; at least seven times that for the NBC Nightly News in the US.

But it too thinks that a revamp is a good idea, especially as competition grows from punchier news programming. There is also an increasing trend for citizens to seek out the news online.

The critics say that there has been talk of updating the show before but that it has never extended much beyond a fresh coat of paint on the studio backdrop. The resistance to change has been such that Luo even once had a request to change his hairstyle denied by the government.

But perhaps the real conundrum in revamping Xinwen Lianbo is not a presentational one. Instead, the programme has to work out how best to sharpen up its news delivery while, at the same time, keeping to its official duties in promoting the voice of party and government.

That’s a difficult balance…

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