The Guangdong Rules
Seno, Alexandra, Newsweek International
Since Rupert Murdoch launched his Chinese channel last year, it has become the top Mandarin-language cable station in Guangdong. Xing Kong offers dance and music, "Little Emperors Grab the Mic" (a chat show with spoiled kids), a game show called "Woman in Control," and "Operation Theatre," a prime-time reality show that turns surgery into TV melodrama, with lots of detailed close-ups. What you won't see on Xing Kong is any coverage of Wen Jiabao in the United States last week. "Oh no," says Chris Wu, general manager of Xing Kong. "We don't do politics. We're not allowed."
You also won't see public broadcasts of the Murdoch channel anywhere other than in Guangdong, the only province in China even partly open to foreign and private media competition. Beijing began opening the Guangdong market on a limited, case-by-case basis in 2001, apparently as an experiment to see how mainland media would fare against competition from Hong Kong, Taiwan and, most recently, the West. With a tradition of more open trade and vibrant publishing than the rest of China, Guangdong was likely chosen in part because it borders Hong Kong, and can't keep out Hong Kong broadcasts anyway. Marcel Fenez, head of the Asian-media practice at PriceWaterhouseCoopers consulting, says: "There is no question that Guangdong is being used as a test bed for what else could happen in China's media."
Guangdong is now the gateway for foreign and private media trying to get a start in China. Since 2001, five foreign companies have won rights to broadcast to the public in Guangdong; in January, Xing Kong got approval to expand its cable reach to other provinces, but only to select hotels and diplomatic compounds. In April, Viacom's MTV became the first international brand to broadcast to ordinary Chinese, but only in Guangdong. "This is historic. It is about getting entry into China in a significant way," says Jessica Kam, MTV's deputy general manager for Guangdong. Many other big international names, including Disney and Bloomberg, are working to obtain rights to launch in Guangdong.
The southern province is still seen as crassly commercial in Beijing, the political capital, and Shanghai, the financial capital. But it's on its way to becoming the media capital. Guangdong TV ad revenues hit $1.6 billion in the first nine months of 2003, the most in China and more than the next two largest markets (Shanghai and Beijing) combined. Foreign companies are still allowed in only selectively and face other hurdles, including ad-profit-sharing rules that favor locals. …