Ying Zhu’s Two Billion Eyes

Major media conglomerates such as Fox or Sony are often portrayed as vast, integrated juggernauts that ruthlessly control the production and circulation of cultural content around the world. The truth, of course, is far more complicated. Although they are supposedly working in concert, corporate divisions compete for recognition and resources, and personal rivalries rage on for years. Moreover, unspoken political preferences can make for very strange bedfellows. Hollywood talent renowned for progressive politics may work with counterparts at the home office who are just as well known for their conservative agendas. Such differences can lead to widely divergent views on short-term objectives and long-term strategies, all of which affect what we see, as well as when and where we see it.

Although such particulars have become more widely understood in the US context, it is truly remarkable the same cannot be said about Chinese media institutions. Instead, Chinese media are commonly portrayed as highly centralized purveyors of carefully censored content. The state is seen as a powerful guiding force that exerts tight ideological control over the world’s largest propaganda apparatus. At the center is China Central Television (CCTV), the only officially-sanctioned national network, which has been very much a mystery, both to its citizens and Western observers, until now.

Ying Zhu’s Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television provides a probing examination of the world’s most-watched television network. Given that the historical origins and continuing mission of CCTV is to act as a bridge between the Communist Party and the Chinese people, Zhu devotes a great deal of attention to the journalistic and informational services of the network. Yet rather than offering a tidy tale of authoritarian mind control, the book provides a fascinating study of the hotly contested evolution of Chinese television since the 1980s. Zhu maps the twists and turns of government policy, the debates among broadcasters, and the many waves of reform regarding network protocols and programming. Granted extensive access to CCTV staff, Zhu quotes her sources at length, allowing them to reflect on a wide range of issues, from programming philosophies to personal struggles, from changes in the political landscape to changes in the everyday lives of Chinese viewers. One comes to appreciate the passion that broadcasters have brought to their work and the challenges they have confronted during a period of tumultuous change.

This passage focuses on the television news magazine, a genre situated at the leading edge of programming innovations around the turn of the century. Using News Probe as a case example, Zhu shows the many ways in which producers exhibited conflicting desires to enlighten as well as entertain, to promote reforms while nevertheless ensuring social stability. Not unlike their counterparts at Western conglomerates, they found themselves relentlessly probing the boundaries of acceptable innovation within a sprawling and contradictory institution.

Ying Zhu, Two Billion Eyes: The Story of China Central Television. New York: The New Press, 2012.

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