In a bid to appeal to a wider demographic and shake off its stuffy image, State media CCTV has launched versions of its flagship nightly news program on social media apps
he Xinwen Lianbo program, the long-running news program by China Central Television (CCTV) daily at 7 pm, made the headlines itself recently after being ranked in the hot search list of Sina Weibo. It was not due to broadcast, but rather because on August 24, it had registered accounts on China’s top two short video apps TikTok and Kwai. Since Xinwen Lianbo is well known for its strait-laced style, both in terms of content and in its broadcasting, its social media aroused attention. It racked up some 10 million followers on the two platforms within just 24 hours, media reported. As of press time, Xinwen Lianbo has 21.9 million followers on TikTok and 27 million on Kwai.
To even more surprise, the move was accompanied with a huge change in the style of broadcast – gone were the poker faces, in came popular internet slang and facial expressions.
It is not the first time that traditional State media, perceived as somewhat stuffy and boring, had tried changing style to get closer to the public. Zhu Guangquan, host of a news program on CCTV-13, is known for his quips, which has gained him an online following. CCTV news anchor Kang Hui often quoted snippets from a China Radio International (CRI) comment program on international affairs called Guoji Ruiping, which literally translates as “pungent comments on international affairs.” The show has become known for its sharp commentary and is often quoted by other media.
Analysts believe it adds up to a desire by State media outlets to try to expand their influence among the public and in particular, woo young people, who are far less likely to consume traditional media of their parents.
In 2018, CCTV, CRI and China National Radio (CNR) merged to become the China Media Group (CMG). The merger aimed to “improve and innovate the communication means of traditional State media” and to “promote the development of new media,” government documents said. The move toward social media stemmed from a 2013 government meeting for publicity work where Chinese President Xi Jinping demanded that traditional State media attach more importance to the internet, a new field of publicity, and cater to different demographics. In response, CRI launched Guoji Ruiping on social media app WeChat and on its own website in 2015. The program, compared to other traditional news programs, is more suitable for the internet age. In July, CMG transferred Guoji Ruiping to its newly established new media center. A manager at the new media center, who would not reveal his name, said that a major task of the new media center is to bring Xinwen Lianbo to the internet and they intended to use Guoji Ruiping as a reference to see how to do it.
The anonymous manager revealed that at the beginning, they wanted to launch Xinwen Lianbo on the social media site with the heaviest traffic, but there was disagreement on what format would best suit Xinwen Lianbo.
Ahead of the new media center’s official opening, staff held meetings discussing the style of broadcast. Many formats were suggested, including infographics, talk shows and even rap. Top management thought it unwise to rush into action, as they wanted the content style to work in the long term. They did not see rap as a sustainable way to broadcast.
The discussions ended on July 25 when on Guoji Ruiping, Kang Hui reported a commentary refuting assertions from US hawks that China is promoting expansionism and that it is threatening other countries with its national strength. “Those ideas are so ridiculous they will make people choke with laughter,” Kang said.
After the quote spread online, the new media center posted it on CCTV’s Weibo account, saying “Today’s Xinwen Lianbo reported a ‘laugh-out-loud’ news at dinner time. You guys, do not choke with laughter.” “The post has managed to stay hot for three days and the leaders believed that we could strike while the iron was hot,” Wang Xingdong, an editor-in-chief at the new media center, told NewsChina. On July 27, CCTV launched a video column on its WeChat account named “Zhubo Shuo Lianbo,” the name meaning “anchors speak about Xinwen Lianbo.” It was the new media center’s first concrete step to broadcast China’s main nightly news program on social media.
“At first, we intended to make the segment a supplement to Xinwen Lianbo, that is, to summarize key facts of the Xinwen Lianbo news to help more people understand it. But it later evolved into short commentaries,” Li Zhe, a deputy director of the new media center, told NewsChina.
According to Li, CCTV had opened a news account on TikTok nine months earlier, which has evolved from long video form to short formats and from horizontal to vertical video. Journalists and designers have learned how to shift from traditional news broadcasting to a more emotional way that is popular on the internet. Li said this paved the way for the move to TikTok and Kwai.
Other government organs and media, including local and national outlets, connected to the internet much earlier. According to a report by TikTok, by December 2018, there were 5,724 government department accounts and 1,334 media accounts on TikTok.
Government flagship newspaper the People’s Daily, for example, started to reshape its image back in 2012 when it opened an account on Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter. Different from the paper version, the People’s Daily weibo posts about smaller issues more relevant to ordinary people and often provides health and lifestyle content. In October 2018, the Party paper also opened a TikTok account which has more than 40 million followers.
However, people never imagined that Xinwen Lianbo would one day join in the cyber world. First broadcast in 1978, it is the flagship news program in China focused on national issues of importance, including diplomacy, foreign affairs and new national policies. The news is presented with an air of solemnity, with anchors sitting upright behind a desk. The anchors are required to adhere to high standards of personal presentation and phraseology.
Although there have been slight changes in the image of anchors – for example, they wear lighter colors instead of somber black – it did not shake the stuffy stereotype in people’s minds. No wonder jaws dropped at the announcement of the social media push. Some people asked if the program’s TikTok account was fake.
Amid the surprise, Kang Hui responded on an episode of Zhubo Shuo Lianbo that the flagship news program is still the traditional Xinwen Lianbo, but it will not keep a low profile when it should be high profile, and similarly, it will not put on airs when it should be close to the public.
“Each word on Xinwen Lianbo has to be deliberate on TV, but it can be a bit more personal on social media. Although the content is serious, we can express it in an individualized and internet-oriented way,” Li Zhe told NewsChina. “Different from traditional Xinwen Lianbo which is live, the online program is recorded so the anchors can be more relaxed.”
According to Li, Zhubo Shuo Lianbo for WeChat and Weibo are recorded following Xinwen Lianbo, with background, lights and outfits the same. The segments posted on TikTok and Kwai are abridged versions of the story, and the anchors are allowed to go off script.
Li said that Xinwen Lianbo’s editing team consists of about 10 people, half of whom are in charge of Xinwen Lianbo’s TikTok and Kwai accounts. Every afternoon, the team chooses what to broadcast on social media based on that day’s trending topics and discusses how to report it in an internet-friendly way.
Hot catchphrases and topics are pitched for the online program, and then senior staff will give the final go-ahead on the content. “The principle of this supervision is to see whether it is interesting, relevant and suited for the internet. If those principles are met, the leaders will not weigh each word of the story like traditional media usually does,” Li said.
“The leaders always encouraged us to make the news more ‘internet-oriented’ and the censorship goes very quickly... After all, the leaders do not expect the program to keep far from the public and only speak empty words,” he added.
“Today’s Xinwen Lianbo reported a brief story saying that China’s CPI (consumer price index) increased by 2.8 percent in July year-on-year. It indicates that our prices are stable, which has been proved by a series of economic indexes issued the same month. I have to emphasize that ‘stability’ is a perfect word to describe today’s Huawei that has released the [self-developed] Hongmeng Operating System despite suppression from the US. Yet, some people seemed unhappy about the stability. A Taiwanese expert (Huang Shicong) said [in a local TV program] that Chinese mainlanders cannot even afford pickled vegetables for their porridge. Netizens are laughing at such a narrow view. It is like a frog at the bottom of a well only seeing a little patch of the sky. But, we have to say it is China’s economic stability that enables us to laugh. In a tumultuous world, many people realize that stability is the source of happiness. OK, it is time for an evening snack. How about some pickles?”
This was a report by anchor Ouyang Xiadan in an episode of Zhubo Shuo Lianbo, which in Li Zhe’s view is a good example of broadcasting the Xinwen Lianbo content on social media. “She showed a good balance on unpacking serious content in a relaxed way,” Li said.
Netizens welcome the more relaxed format. Popular blogger Li Kancai said in his column that he never thought that one day he would be addicted to following Xinwen Lianbo on TikTok. In the comment area of Xinwen Lianbo’s TikTok account, one netizen said that he has “come to love Xinwen Lianbo.” Some netizens especially liked to see anchors counterattack foreign ideas in a powerful and humorous manner, dubbing them as “CCTV’s crosstalk comedians.” Crosstalk is a traditional style of Chinese comedy.
Kang Hui, however, claimed in the program that their purpose is not to attack anyone, but to express China’s stance. “Xinwen Lianbo has enough sense and sensibility and gives clear facts and opinions. It shows true China...” he said on the first TikTok broadcast.
Wang Xingdong admitted that the new media center will consider and weigh risks while using the internet to get close to the people. “We will monitor public opinion, but we haven’t had any negative comments yet. If an episode triggers very negative comments, we’d remove it from the platform,” Wang said. He added that each platform has different demands for content. And, what is considered mainstream and have been described as “counterattacks” do not guarantee higher traffic. “We have a satisfactory rate of being listed in the hot search rankings, but we haven’t set a performance index for it,” he said.
According to Wang, Xinwen Lianbo anchors are very willing to try new styles, since new media has enabled them to be more individual. The team is now planning to try more channels, including Bilibili, China’s most popular video website for gaming, animation and comics.
“To distinguish from the traditional Xinwen Lianbo, some anchors might have overacted a bit at the very beginning, but after an adaptive phase, they have become more and more relaxed and found which style best suits them,” Li Zhe said.