China Global Television Network (CGTN): old wine in new bottles?

China's international broadcasting, formerly known as CCTV-News, gets a makeover

Posted by Dani Madrid-Morales on December 31, 2016

Just as 2016 was shutting down, Beijing announced today that it was rebranding CCTV's international division to China Global Television Network (CGTN). China Central Television's, a State-owned broadcaster, domestic brand remains the same. The rebranding means that what we used to call CCTV-News is now to be called CGTN (with its Chinese name now being changed to 中国环球电视网). It also implies name changes for all of CCTV's international operations: the other foreign-language channels (now CGTN Español, CGTN Français, CGTN Pусский, CGTN العربية and CGTN Docummentary), mobile apps, website and CCTV's global news content distribution platform, which goes from being called CCTV Newscontent to CCTV Plus. At a personal level, it implies a lot of Search and Replace for my dissertation as I no longer research CCTV's operations in Africa, but CGTN's. But that's a different story.

The structure of the new 'company' or platform as presented in the promotional video. The structure of the new "company" or platform.

The announcement came with the usual fanfare. The South China Morning Post was quick to post a story on its website and CGTN ran stories pretty much all day on the rebranding. Even Xi Jinping is reported to have sent a congratulatory letter to the "new station" full of big words:

"The relationship between China and the world is changing. China needs to better understand the world, and the world needs to better understand China. CGTN must make use of abundant information, with a distinct Chinese perspective and a global vision, to tell the stories of China. The network should let the world meet a China that is multi-dimensional and colorful as well as showcase the country as a constructor of world peace, a contributor to global development, a vindicator of international order, and a promoter of a common destiny for all humans."

Xinhua is also quoting Liu Yunshan (刘云山), member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee in charge of propaganda activities, who allegedly said:

"CGTN should put news content first, highlight new ideas and strategies of state governance with Xi as the core, tell stories about China's development, explain China's path, theory and contribution, and have a voice in major global affairs and international issues"

The interesting part of these quotes beyond the usual rhetoric is how much they sound like what they used to sound. So CCTV-News relaunched in 2007 and then again in 2011 to become a global player in international news. Since then it has struggled to become relevant, as opposed to Russia's RT, which has seen audience skyrocket, particularly on social media, and Al Jazeera, which remains at the forefront of alternative voices in international broadcasting--more so after launching AJ+. So here goes CCTV changing its logo, name and slogan once again, but with apparently no efforts in rethinking its core mission and values. The official line seems to be that this is not a simple rebranding but that this is a new start. "The launch of CGTN is much more than just a re-branding. Our new multi-language, multi-platform network aims to provide people around the world with a fresh alternative," was the text one of the anchors was reading today. However, both Xi and Liu repeated the all discourse and, at least for the time being, no changes appear to have been made.

Rebranding a product with low brand recognition

Whenever I write or speak about CGTN's operations, I always claim two things: a) it has a very serious image problem in terms of credibility and quality, which is worsened by China's own image problems overseas (think of cheap products, environmental degradation, rowdy tourists...), and b) it produces some excellent documentaries and offers a surprisingly diverse array of opinions and perspectives on certain topics (particularly on Africa). The issue here is that until CGTN manages to overcome its reputation problems, it will be almost impossible to get people to sit down and watch content regularly. Probably some of the biggest efforts by CGTN have been in Africa where it has deployed more journalists than any other international broadcaster. However, throughout my research, I have found that CCTV has a very low brand recognition. Very few people know about CGTN, very little has been invested in increasing brand recognition and CGTN is largely unaware of this, because no audience research is being carried out. My assumption, as I have no data to back this up, is that the same problem is happening in the United States, which is also a preferential market for CGTN. Rebranding a product that has very low brand recognition makes little sense, unless you are reconceptualising it in order to start afresh. What would be much more effective would be to engage in active promotion on the ground. During my fieldwork in Africa never did I encounter a TV commercial, an newspaper add or a billboard promoting CCTV. BBC, which has a high brand recognition in Africa, had billboards all over Nairobi.

Old wine, new bottles reloaded

Beijing's ultimate problem is that it wants a shortcut to global popularity. It is hoping to grow its cultural appeal and influence by presenting itself as something it is not (yet). China's global appeal will only surge once the state recedes and allows civil society, the private sector and the creative industries (all of which need more freedom to operate than they have now) to represent the country overseas. Let WeChat and Lenovo and Huawei and Ning Zetao and Lang Ping and Jack Ma to take the lead. It is by naturally allowing the world to discover the best China has to offer that the existing image problems will slowly dissipate. As with any global power, China will always have supporters and detractors, there will always be controversies and dark spots, but micro-managing and cover-ups will not help. Changes in attitudes will only come in the long term. Until then, no matter whether we call it CGTN or CCTV-News, CCTV-International or CCTV-9, the content and context have not changed and all we have is the same old wine in a new shiny bottle.