[Editor’s Note: The piece was written by Yang Wang, who is currently the brand and media director at Chemical Industry Press. He has published and translated seven books, and several of his works have been translated and published in areas such as Taiwan and South Korea. Yang has also contributed pieces and columns to The Beijing News and other major media outlets. In regard to technology, he is mainly interested in the changing face of media as well as the business side of the industry.Originally from Beijing, Yang moved to California with his family before coming back to his native city after receiving a degree in Communication from the University of California, San Diego. ]
Whether the wording is “developing” or the more recent “emerging”, if they are used in describing a country, the image it conveys is usually backwardness. However, while in the short run a “developing” country is behind a “developed” country, in the long run such a condition may actually be beneficial.
As fans of the Sid Meier’s Civilization series will attest, being backward will allow you to skip certain stages of development. In Africa, mobile phone allows people to enjoy telephone services even though they have inadequate infrastructure for landlines. Such is also the case in China, where Internet has become the go-to destination for niche interests for media consumption.
Because of difference in developmental curves, Internet in China is first and foremost a mass medium. Whereas websites in America tend to serve the long tail, their China counterparts offer a viable alternative to mainstream media. In this sense, the Internet is functioning much like the cable industry in the United States.
Cable, like its bigger cousin network television, costs a lot of money to run, so the economics demand it to be a mass medium. However, the logic behind cable is not to serve as many viewers as possible, but to target a segment of people with intense interest in a given subject. Cable channels are flourishing in America because it has the ability to fulfill the demand of niche markets. However esoteric the subjects, as long as enough people are willing to pay for it, the thirst will be quenched. This way, cable makes up for the lack of diversity in network television, as its programming must be watered down to a certain degree in order to appeal to the widest audience.
China faces the same problem, only much worse. The contents on Chinese television are very homogenous. This is not evident in paper. Nominally, CCTV, China’s state-run TV station itself offers more than a dozen channels, each devoted to a unique target audience. There is a channel for overseas Chinese, a channel for sports fans, even a channel for military personnel and rural populations.
However, this apparent diversity in programming is rather like separate dishes made by the same cook: they may look different, but they all task alike. The common ingredients, of course, are CCTV’s national coverage and its function as the CCP’s communication tool, both of which requires CCTV to be politically correct and bland.
This problem also plagues local channels and satellite channels, albeit for different reasons. Except for The Travel Channel based in Hainan, most of the local channels offer similar programming. This phenomenon arises mainly from the fact that all the channels are serving their local areas first and foremost.
Right now, only cable boxes provided by companies such as Gehua offer niche programming. Because of limited access and mostly mediocre contents, these channels have attracted neither attention nor revenue.
The state of television has left a huge vacuum, which is rapidly being filled by the Internet. Compared to cable TV, the operational cost of a website is lower, so economics is not the determining force in this development. Rather, the Internet merely provides what the audience wants.
Because of its renowned infrastructure, China has made Internet access available to most people. As long as the content is appealing, the websites can attract massive traffic. For the Chinese users, the Internet is even better than American cable, since piracy is still rampant and all of the contents are essentially free. For the websites, this is a great way to piggyback on other people’s contents, be it European soccer or American television shows. These advantages have allowed the Internet to become a viable complement as well as competitive force to television.
Also, Chinese people spend more time online as the Middle Kingdom has become a major Internet market with increasingly mature consumers. According to a Boston Consulting Group report out lately titled “China’s Digital Generations 3.0“, in last year Chinese people spent 1.9 billion hours a day online — an increase of 60% from two years earlier.
As China’s Internet penetration will exceed 50% by 2015, the Internet will soon replace newspaper as the medium with the second highest daily reach, only next to TV in cities. While among people under 30, the Internet’s penetration is nearly as high as TV’s. Internet is on track to become a massive mass medium in China.