In one form or another, China’s nightly TV news simulcast has been around since 1958 – the year its state-run broadcaster CCTV began beaming its own television content inside Beijing.
CCTV went nationwide in 1978 – and even today all the other TV channels have to air its news broadcast at 7pm every evening. At its peak in the 1990s, some 250 million people regularly tuned in to the show each night.
But since then viewership has dwindled to about 135 million because audiences were able to avoid the stiff, propaganda-laden show by watching other content online.
The recipe for the programme is so predictable that there is even well-known ditty to sum up the half-hour long format: “In the first 10 minutes: the leaders are busy. Middle 10 minutes: the common people are happy and healthy. The last 10 minutes: the rest of the world is in chaos.” It rhymes in Chinese.
There was mild controversy last year when a professor from the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications dubbed all non-watchers as “low-end” and dismissed them as “lazy, greedy people who don’t know how to be grateful”. That provocative remark wasn’t likely to lure back the younger audience who’d already deserted the programme in droves.
Yet in recent weeks Xinwen Lianbo – as the broadcast is known in Chinese – has had a sudden surge of popularity online.
As the trade war with the US has escalated and unsettled Chinese citizens, some have turned back to the government’s flagship programme for news that reassures.
It helps that during this period Xinwen Lianbo also embraced social media – finally launching official accounts on WeChat and video-sharing platforms Douyin and Kuaishou.
“Young people tend to say that Xinwen Lianbo is a TV programme for the older generation. Those people should eat their words, since many young people have become fans of Xinwen Lianbo recently,” said Kang Hui, a CCTV anchor in a video on the show’s Douyin account.
Part of the new-found appeal is a fresh style of delivery – the anchors, all household names, use more colourful, slangy terminology in their online broadcasts. Indeed the language is so current that CCTV had to issue a guide to help people who were trying to translate the online mini-broadcasts into English.
“‘Your mouth is a runaway train’ means ‘you are full of crap’” it advised. “‘Makes you spit out your rice’ means something is ‘laughable.’”
Some of these phrases then went viral on the Chinese internet.
Xinwen Lianbo’s first clip on Kuaishou – posted on August 24 – garnered 54 million viewers in its first hour and by September 2 it had amassed 20 million followers on that platform and its rival Douyin (known as TikTok outside China).
So far the show has posted nine short commentary-style videos to the two platforms: including two about the trade war and another about the upcoming National Day military parade. “This is the Xinwen Lianbo I always dreamed of,” said one gushing Kuaishou viewer.
One particularly popular clip described America as an “overbearing CEO” – a popular trope taken from Chinese soap operas. Another clip touched on a Chinese-English phrase from Hong Kong “no zuo no die”, meaning “if you do stupid things you will live to regret them”.
The stylistic shift also seems to have slipped into the 7pm television broadcast as well, with viewers noticing a more chatty delivery since late July – not bad for a channel that used to require its anchors to get official approval just to change their hairstyles.
And the changes have brought benefits: viewership of the nightly show is now growing, the channel says. Of course, not everyone likes the new format. “This new style is too down to earth,” complained one longtime watcher. “You can dress it up all you like, it’s still the same old nonsense,” remarked another.
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