Chinese Stories in English
The other day while I was waiting in line to pay my cable bill, I had to ask myself, "Is it really worth this much hassle just to watch Chinese TV?" After all, Chinese TV… um, hang on a sec while I think of a diplomatic way to say this. OK, how about this? If you're planning on studying Mandarin so you watch TV while you're over here on vacation, don't bother.
The most popular programs (judging by the amount of air time devoted to them) are "continuing plays" or 连续剧. Like mini-series on American TV, these shows have a limited number of episodes (usually 25 to 40, broadcast over three weeks or so) but the production values are more like American soap operas: second-rate acting and third-rate scripts. They're mostly shot on location (because borrowing apartments and offices is cheaper than building sets, I guess) and they rely heavily on dialog to move the plot along (because "talking heads" are cheaper than action shots).
Actually, the actors talk so fast, I can usually get only about half of the dialog in these shows. Maybe if I understood more I would have a better opinion of the scripts. Or maybe not.
Continuing plays come in two basic flavors: period dramas (which describe how terrible life was before the Chinese were liberated by the Communist Party) and modern dramas (which show how wonderful life is now under the Party's inspired leadership). They are invariably dramas, although there may be a doltish character or two to provide comic relief. Sitcoms are not unheard of but are rare.
Recently continuing plays produced in South Korea have become very popular. I'm not sure why the Party allows these imports. Maybe it's an attempt to encourage consumer spending, since most of the characters wear fashionable clothing and drive expensive cars.
The Korean programs are dubbed in Chinese – no surprise there – but oddly enough, shows where the actors are speaking Mandarin get dubbed as well. I suspect this is because doing voice-overs in the studio is more convenient than lugging all that expensive sound equipment around on location. Often the voices don't sound quite right – an older actor speaking with a young person's voice, for example. Also, the audio and video tracks seldom match up very well, which can be quite distracting until you get used to it.
No attempt is made to fit the shows into defined time slots. Each show lasts as long as it lasts. Therefore, if your favorite show starts at 8:00 one night, it may start at any time between, say, 7:45 and 8:15 the next, depending on how long the previous show lasted. Because if this, TV guides have to be organized by channel rather than by time: if you want to know what's on at a particular time, you have to browse through the individual listings for every channel.
News programs will keep you informed of the Party's views on a wide range of topics. The national news is produced in Beijing and broadcast contemporaneously on all the major channels throughout the nation, thus insuring that everyone gets the same message. Local stations are allowed to produce their own news shows, under the close scrutiny of local Party officials, dealing with local topics. What passes for investigative journalism normally focuses on sob stories about personal or family tragedies that are ultimately resolved through intervention by the Party, after which everyone lives happily ever after.
Talk shows, talent contests, variety shows and game shows fill up a good deal of the remaining airtime. Presumably their "popularity" stems from the fact that they're cheap to produce. Sporting events round out the schedule (think soccer, ping pong, badminton, basketball and, lately, tennis).
You can even get some English-language programming, especially if you purchase premium cable channels. About half of these imports, I estimate, are three to four-year-old nature and science programs acquired from NatGeo, the BBC and Discovery. Every year the Chinese also buy the rights to broadcast one or two hits (like Big Bang Theory and Dexter, but only one season from each show) plus other programs that are available cheap (like Arrow and Revolution). I remember how surprised and disappointed I was, the first time I watched TV in China, when Man from Atlantis came on.
Western movies are selected for broadcast in the same manner as TV shows: one or two blockbusters per year, plus a bunch of productions you've probably never heard of. There are enough Pixar animations on the air to make me believe that they must have got a quantity discount. Since so few western movies and TV shows are available (see here), they get broadcast over, and over, and over....
So, why did I wait in line for 63 minutes to pay the cable bill, instead of using the time and money for something more entertaining, like drinking beer? Well, Laopo likes the continuing plays, and I like the nature shows enough to watch them again and again. Also, it's cheap -- 261 Yuan (≈$43.50) for six months, including a couple of upgrade channels. More importantly, watching TV here gives me something to rant about.
Incidentally, 63 minutes in line at the cable company isn't a record. The record is 75 minutes waiting to return equipment to Comcast in Florida. American business doesn't take a backseat to anyone!
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