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Beijing Calling: The Trouble With China's New English-Language News Network

The Chinese government has dreamed for years of creating an English-language news network that could successfully compete with CNN or Al Jazeera for global eyeballs. The TodayChina network is China's third attempt to start a BBC of its own. Will the third time be the charm?

The Chinese government has dreamed for years of launching an English-language news network that could successfully compete with CNN or Al Jazeera for global eyeballs. Yesterday, Chinese government officials announced the launch of a new network, TodayChina, to debut in February. This will be China's third attempt to start a BBC of its own. Will the third time be the charm?

TodayChina will be initially available to viewers in New York, Beijing, and Hong Kong. As of this writing, it was unclear whether the network has obtained a channel slot from local providers Time Warner, Cablevision, or Verizon FiOS. Another Chinese state-operated news network, CCTV News, already airs in New York and much of the United States. However, CCTV News has been hampered by cultural translation issues and a microscopic advertising budget. A second China-based news network, CNC World, is operated by the state Xinhua news agency and appears on a modest amount of American cable and satellite systems.

According to Bloomberg, the network will air news and entertainment programming in English and Chinese. TodayChina will be operated by a public-private partnership between (the Chinese government's official web portal and Internet content outfit) and private firm CMMB Holdings. CMMB's main business is developing technology that allows mobile smartphones and vehicles to receive UHF television signal—this may indicate why the Chinese government is interested in yet another English-language news station. Mobile television is poised to become a big business in 2012 and 2013, and the launch allows China to have an early presence.

The 24-hour English-language news network is the holy grail for foreign governments, as it allows them to reach—and influence—hearts and minds, with large financial and political implications. The British government has an ongoing relationship with the BBC (BBC World is a commercially-funded network), the Qatari government subsidizes Al Jazeera English, Iran operates their Press TV, France broadcasts France 24, and Russia has the state funded and operated RT. These networks all operate with varying degrees of autonomy from their sponsor governments. While Al Jazeera and the BBC operate more or less independently, Press TV shamelessly echoes Iranian government talking points. RT, meanwhile, opts for gonzo publicity stunts and an eclectic programming schedule that embraces American conspiracy theorists and Russian pop culture.

Kim Andrew Elliott, an audience research analyst for the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, tells Fast Company that "for China's and other foreign 24-hour channels, it's difficult to get carriage on cable systems and DTH satellite services. This forces most people to watch the channel via a website—still a somewhat clunky process compared to cable and satellite. Even if reception problems are resolved, content remains an issue. If the Chinese channels want to be competitive as providers of global news, they will have to compete with the big three: CNN International, BBC World News, and Al Jazeera English."

That won't be easy, says Andrew Elliott. "This would require a formidable worldwide network of correspondents, and journalistic independence. The Chinese channels are working to develop the former, but the latter still seems out of reach. Also, the division of resources between CCTV News and CNC World is probably not helpful."

The biggest problem China has in dealing with in their 24-hour news network problems is the sprawling nature of the Chinese government. International broadcasting is handled through a number of governmental and quasi-government agencies; CCTV is a product of China's State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, while CNC World is operated by the state-affiliated Xinhua news agencies. Both networks frequently make errors in Chinese-English translation, broadcast material that appears odd in a Western context, and air programming with frequently shoddy production values. However, Philip Seib, an expert on digital diplomacy at the University of Southern California, notes that China has recently put an increased emphasis on foreign news broadcasting. But at the same time, there's no one central Chinese English-language news network—all these state-operated networks are cannibalizing the same (small) market share.

China's announcement comes shortly after President Hu Jintao wrote a controversial essay calling for a "culture war" with the West. The essay, published on January 1, calls for China to develop a pop culture of its own that can be exported across borders.

For now, TodayChina and the other English-language Chinese news networks appear to be less about winning foreign viewership and more about retaining the massive Chinese diaspora. Programming continues to be in a mix of Chinese and English. A minuscule advertising budget means most Westerners are unaware CCTV and CNC World are even aired on most cable networks. None of the networks have the budget or editorial autonomy necessary to produce quality content on par with Al Jazeera or the BBC. If China really does want foreign viewers to see Chinese-produced news programming, they have a long way to go.

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported that BBC World is funded by the British government; the network is, in fact, commercially funded.

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

[Top Image: Flickr user familywmr, Main Image: The Library of Congress]

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