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September 16, 2006

Multiplatform Entertainment: A View from China

The following post originally appeared on on my blog earlier this week, featuring a response to one of my previous writings from a graduate student here in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT.

Last week, I posted about the rapid speed with which television content has moved into new channels of distribution and the degree to which the American public seems to have embraced the ideal of rerun on demand, television for download, call it what you will. One of the key lessons of media studies is that the same technology may get adopted in different ways and at different speeds in different cultures around the world. This is one of the real value of taking a global perspective on media change.

My post inspired one of the Comparative Media Studies graduate students, Rena Huang, to post some thoughts on her blog about how this same process is playing itself out in China and I asked her if I could repost these remarks here. Huang is a second year Masters student who is doing a thesis on the growth of the Chinese animation industry and is working with CMS faculty memberJing Wang, the Chair of the MIT Foreign Languages and Literatures Section, to construct a digital archive of Chinese animation in collaboration with the Beijing Film Academy. She was also part of the team from our Convergence Culture Consortium who participated in Project Good Luck this summer helping to document mobile culture in China. For those who haven't checked that site in a bit, they are still uploading pictures and interviews from the trip, including an interesting exchange with the Back Dorm Boys, the Chinese students who became famous for their lip-sincing video at YouTube.

The following was written by Rena Huang:

Henry's "television goes multiplatform" interests me a lot since when I was back in China for the summer, I heard a lot of talks about and saw some real happenings of TV on other platforms, but not quite the same kind of platform as described in Henry's article. There are less downloading (the legal kind) of TV programs in China for various reasons. The broadcasting system, which features an overabundance of similar TV channels and a relative shortage of original content, has made frequent program rerun on different channels a common practice. One who misses his or her favorite episodes can soon catch it up on other channels. I couldn't believe that during the summer, the Westward Journey series (which was premiered 20 years ago and I really love it), is being aired to audiences old and new, on at least ten different channels. It keeps you safe in the competition to show what others are showing if you don't have better things to show.

Much of the talks I heard about alternative forms of TV-watching came from the corporate and the government. The idea of watching TV on various mobile devices is being infused to the public with greater efforts.

Watching TV on your cell phone is one way to do it. Most people are aware of and are exciting about 3G technology, when they don't yet have to worry about their 3G phone bills. But the corporate goes the easier way. Video transmission technology that is being developed and deployed for mobile receiver in China is mainly the digital multimedia broadcasting mode, that is, to broadcast through terrestrial or satellite broadcasting system. This is what Japan and South Korea are employing in their mobile TV service. But it's not happening in the US, since unlike Europe and other parts of the world, the US has failed to allocate the two kinds of radio bands that are required for this kind of transmission. With this type of relatively low-cost technology, people can watch TV on mobiles devices such as cell phone, PDA, mobile TV, and so on, for FREE, which is one major reason why we're so optimistic about the future of mobile TV-watching in China.

If massive television watching on personal mobile devices such as a cell phone is still a talk, then watching TV on communal mobile devices is already an everyday experience for many urban Chinese. It's the mobile television on public transportation. Beijing All Media and Culture Group (BAMC), who owns Beijing Television and Beijing People Broadcasting Station, set up a mobile television company and started trial broadcasting in May 2004 on 1000 Beijing buses. As of this writing, they've laid 16,000 TV sets on 5000 buses, 5000 taxies, 1,000 government vehicles and 4 subway cars to air programs to 4.5 million audiences per day, and are planning more in more public spaces.

A direct incentive behind the Chinese government's support and advocate for this initiative is the 29th Olympics to be held in Beijing in 2008. "Watch the games while you are on the go" is the picture that has been unfolded in front of people for them to grab. It is planned that, by year 2008, mobile TV broadcasting will be available across the country for people to watch on their cell phones. But the government, of course, looks way beyond 2008. The infrastructure that remains after the game will put China well ahead of others in the development and application of such technology. I was so unused to the fact that I didn't need to worry about my cell phone signals any more when I was in Beijing, no matter how deep I was under the ground. Every corner of the city is covered with cell phone signals, and will be covered with TV signals soon.

But you may wonder now, what do people watch on these mobile media. As for BAMC, a major technology, as well as content, provider in Beijing area, they have 17 hours programs (including repeats) to show to bus passengers a day, some licensed, some home-made. These programs are mainly on entertainment, life style and travel, the fast food, grab 'n go type. One interesting portion of the show is the live broadcast of traffic situation in the city which taps into the traffic cameras set up by the police on major roads. Any accident happened on the road will be released to the audience within three minutes. And of course, there are commercials and other sort of weird things. Once I noticed there was an interactive game playing on the TV screen while I was sitting on the bus. People called in to play a quick game using their phones. It costs 1.5 yuan per minute for the call, and you can win gifts. I was amazed to see that every 1 out 3 or 4 players won a big award of 80 or 120 yuan. How could the host make money? "You believe that those are real people winning? The TV is just playing tricks and trying to hook callers innocent like you!" my husband laughed at me.

Yes, that was stupid of me believing that you can actually make a fortune by playing games with mobile TV. It's true that, unlike in the US where people download and watch what they demand, here we don't have much control over where we would like to watch, nor what we can watch. A Beijing bus commuter actually went so far as to sue the bus company for "imposing TV commercials" on him when he doesn't want to see them. And he lost the lawsuit of course, since "there is no law saying that buses are not allowed to carry advertisement". He can go on to complain with the Administration of Environment, the judge suggested, if he feels bothered by the noise made by the bus TV. I don't think he can win that complaint either, 'cause for me at least, the audio of the bus TV is hardly recognizable on noisy roads and crowded buses of Beijing.

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