For two and a half decades Zhang Hongmin and Li Ruiying have presented state TV’s leading evening news programme together. They covered the Hong Kong handover, the Sichuan earthquake and the Beijing Olympics. Arguably, they are better recognised than many of China’s current leaders.
But now it has emerged that both have resigned from the show, known in Chinese as Xinwen Lianbo.
The news leaked out via a friend of Zhang’s and was confirmed by a text from Li to a reporter at the Sohu news portal.
“We are grateful to CCTV for cultivating us, and we appreciate the support from our audiences. We think the younger news anchors have grown up and it’s time for us to continue to work backstage as their trainers and mentors,” she said.
There was no official statement from their employer, no on-air goodbye and no public appearance to thank their fans.
The two anchors had been off the air for almost three months at the time the news of their departure emerged. But media experts quoted by the China Daily were still surprised at the sudden departure. So just what is going on? One theory is that the exits may be connected to the recent upheaval at the channel. As WiC reported last week, CCTV appears to have attracted the attention of anti-corruption investigators, possibly as a result of alleged links to the former domestic security tsar Zhou Yongkang.
Guo Zhenxi, the head of CCTV’s business news channel, was arrested late last month for taking bribes. Prior to that the station’s former deputy director Li Dongsheng was taken into custody by the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection for ‘serious disciplinary violations’.
Another anchor – who hasn’t appeared on air since January – is also helping authorities with their investigations.
In the absence of any official confirmation, it must be assumed, however, that Zhang and Li’s departures are unrelated to anti-graft drives or political battles and perhaps have more to do with the dwindling reach of their 7pm newscast.
Despite being broadcast across 31 channels simultaneously, the programme now reaches only 11% of the TV audience, a huge drop from 15 years ago when one in two viewers tuned in.
Xinwen Lianbo’s rather rigid format – it dedicates the first 10 minutes to the activities of Chinese leaders no matter what else is happening in the country or the rest of the world – clearly has most of the public reaching for the remote control.
Similarly its habit of presenting domestic news in a more positive light than foreign events often riles viewers too.
The formula has been mocked by netizens as “the leaders are busy, the people are happy and the other countries are chaotic”.
Many now choose to watch channels like Phoenix for their news programmes or simply stay abreast by sourcing it themselves online.
Even Xi Jinping is aware that the old formula isn’t working. In December 2012, shortly after he became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi suggested that the flagship news show shouldn’t alway lead with reports on top leaders. Instead the line-up should be decided by “newsworthiness and social impact,” he proposed.
Whether or not the format is rejigged, it seems certain that newer, younger anchors will be brought in to try to win back viewers. But much of the public is so disillusioned with CCTV’s delivery that fresh faces may not be enough to boost the ratings. “It doesn’t matter who reads the news to us, it’s all lies,” wrote one person on weibo after learning of Zhang and Li’s retirement.
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