Call me snobbish but I have never hidden my disappointment with Chinese television. In general, that is. I am not ruling out the occasional decent show.
When I flip through the 60-something channels, I rarely stumble upon anything to my taste. Not educational programming like Discovery or PBS. For that, I have to trek to a certain stall in southern China whose owner has a warehouse of great discs.
Recently, I got a box set of Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, a BBC series that functioned as the "open sesame" to a world of Western civilization for me, while I was a graduate student in Guangzhou, in the early 1980s. My German-born English professor borrowed canisters of films from the British Embassy and for the first time I realized that great art does not necessarily spring from class struggle.
Sure, CCTV10, as well as an array of imitators, is attempting to fill this void. Its runaway hit The Lecture Room does a service to various aspects of Chinese culture. But a lecture filled with graphics and footage from period dramas does not equal a good documentary with high production values. And focusing on only a few Chinese classics does not make what Francis Bacon called "a full man". Why not broaden the vista to embrace other fields, such as modern Chinese literature, or French Impressionist paintings, or Shakespeare?
Speaking of production values, Chinese soap operas have come a long way from the not-too-distant past of shabby costumes and haphazard lighting. But I can hardly bear to put myself through a whole show because I can tell from the first episode what will happen by the grand finale. Worse, whenever a character says his or her line, it is easy for me to predict the follow-up line.
Last month, the publicist of a television company sent me a copy of a high-prestige new show to critique. When he called me up, I said: "Congratulations on a potential hit!"
"So, you liked it," he said.
"No way. I watched only the first hour and it's so formulaic I could quickly tell who would end up with whom by the end. My mother-in-law loved it, though. She is a better barometer. If I loved your show, it would probably bomb as no middle-aged housewives would swoon with joy or anguish at the melodrama."
As I see it, Chinese television entertainment is a paragon of kitsch, especially as far as variety shows are concerned. When last summer CCTV let ethnic singers use their "original style", audiences were stunned: singing without the pretense of overheated emoting, or so-called professional training, could touch our hearts like a force of nature.
You can imagine why it made me laugh when I saw the proclamation this week that China is now officially "the biggest producing and broadcasting country of television drama". Last year we churned out 40 episodes a day, some of which were aired on 90 percent of the country's 1,974 channels.
Now, I don't expect every show to be smart and witty and thought provoking, but just like Hollywood blockbusters, our television programming seems to aim for the lowest common denominator.
For those of you who rely on your tube as a language tool, I have this advice: We Chinese don't actually talk like that in real life. What you see is a parallel universe populated by eerily hollow characters, such as 20-somethings who spend a fortune on a meal or otherwise act with no discernable motive.
(China Daily 03/01/2008 page4)