Media: Diary of a culture shock
David Elstein, chief executive of C5, accompanied Chris Smith to Peking to promote British TV and culture
Tuesday 11 May 1999
Vice-Premier Li Lanqing is dapper and shrewd. He and his staff form one half of a horseshoe formation; Culture Secretary Chris Smith, the ambassador and the delegation the other half. Tea is served in large mugs by white- gloved attendants.
Wednesday. Overnight faxes bear the news of Mark Booth's leaving BSkyB. Our first meeting, coincidentally, is with the head of China Satellite Broadcasting. Could he be a replacement? Perhaps not. His only concession to smartness is a Christian Dior glasses case. In a drab suburban office, up two flights of steps, the lights fuse after five minutes.
What will encourage Murdoch, however, is the speed at which China is installing satellite dishes. A trial project will within a year bring them to 50,000 villages beyond reach of terrestrial television signals.
After that, "real DTH", as they call it, is in prospect - not just for the 50 million households in those villages but for the 300 million existing television homes as they upgrade to multi-channel.
At Beijing Cable, we find another gap for Murdoch to exploit. Although joint ventures in China are not supposed to provide domestic TV services, his influential partners have managed to place Phoenix TV (of which Murdoch owns 45 per cent) on nearly half of China's 3,000 cable systems, which serve 18 million homes. Beijing Cable plans to double its 50 per cent penetration of the city within two years. How do they deal with evaders of the pounds 1 monthly charge? Puzzled looks. For the moment, they eventually reply, we are building out the system, not worrying how to manage it.
At Beijing TV, we are startled to discover that its operations are 99.8 per cent funded by commercial revenue. A version of Blind Date is its most popular series. Far from fearing the new technology, the Chinese are confidently embracing cable, satellite, digital, video-on-demand and the Internet. Content control is an issue they will finesse. They want Gates, but they want to be their own keepers.
Wednesday night. The visiting Royal Ballet perform Romeo and Juliet, brilliantly danced by Jonathan Cope and Sylvie Guillem. Sadly, the local orchestra seems unfamiliar with the score. The Russian-built auditorium has thankfully poor acoustics.
Thursday morning. Rupert Gavin of BBC Worldwide is being briefed over breakfast on the structure of the Chinese government. The giant, complex diagram - with its central committee, politburo and state department - looks remarkably like the BBC. I wonder, when we visit the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), whether they will be able to tell the difference between the licence-funded Worldwide and the Foreign Office- funded BBC World Service, represented by Elizabeth Wright.
Such fine distinctions register not at all. The minister launches into a two-fisted assault on the BBC, for lack of truth, facts and objectivity, particularly in regard to Tibet. We try to remonstrate: broadcasters and governments often disagree. The minister points dramatically in front of him. That is a cup. That is a fact. The BBC must learn. We refrain from citing Wittgenstein.
More meetings, more tea. The Minister for Industries makes clear his disapproval of his government's concessions in the WTO talks. The copyright division promises our music industry delegate new anti-piracy measures. The film censors tell us they never reject a production, only suggest improvements. The head of China Central Television (CCTV) claims the world's largest domestic television audience: yet 41 years ago China had just 12 TV sets. At a press briefing, Rupert Gavin is accused of risking the BBC's journalism for commercial ends - by the BBC's Peking correspondent!
Thursday night: dinner at the embassy. At our table, Chris Smith is regaled with a fluent rendition of his adult biography, meticulously memorised by CCTV's china-doll interpreter, He Ping. Mr An Li, from SARFT, reaches across me to tug her sleeve. He wants to tell Chris Smith how much he likes him. Am I witnessing the entrapment of a Cabinet minister? An Li ploughs on: it's your smile, you're always smiling, even when you're not smiling, you look as if you are. Chris Smith beams pinkly. He Ping predicts he will be a star when his pre-recorded CCTV interview is broadcast. She will personally select the nicest of the female callers for him after the screening.
The smile never flickers.
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