China: State of disarray

chinese flagChinese stations in Canada well serve their audience with popular fare
from Hong Kong and the People’s Republic. Why the same can’t be said of
their amateur news shows. This week we feature
Joyce Yip’s story from the summer issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

“This job is really boring,” the reporter sighs soon after she begins transcribing an interview for a weekly news show in one of Fairchild TV’s editing suites in Richmond Hill, Ontario. The elevator-sized room is walled by a file cabinet, a ceiling-high shelf of Beta tapes and a sticker-infested desk with an analogue editing system that resembles the head unit of the DeLorean from Back to the Future.

She rewinds the clip for the fourth time. “What does flourishing mean?” she asks in Mandarin. I translate. She moves onto the next 30 seconds. “What’s she saying?” She lets out a long sigh. “Freer? What’s freer?” She turns to me. “Is it ‘of a free’?” I spell the word and explain its meaning, but she’s still puzzled. “It’s a superlative,” I add and get up to write on her script. “And travelled has a v and e before the two ls.”

Behind us, the station’s newsroom is surprisingly quiet for 11 a.m.—just a handful of staff on their desktops, looking for story leads in e-mails and on news wires, and keeping an eye on the feed room where raw footage from CNN, CBC, Global and two Chinese stations air on five small television screens. “What is martial law?” The reporter’s moan redirects my attention. “Whatever, I’ll just write it down first.” Although the reporter I’ve been talking to says she was the editor-in-chief for China Central Television’s Morning News in Beijing for seven months, it will take her a few hours to complete her task—plus, her editor will have to weed out her numerous errors before it goes live.

This is business as usual at Fairchild, the biggest player in the Chinese broadcast news market in Canada. With varying degrees of success, the station tries to serve as a bridge between Chinese culture and mainstream society; it offers a mixture of overseas and Canadian-made programs across the country for an additional monthly cable fee of approximately $15. Along with a daily Hong Kong satellite news show, it runs a Canadian-made evening newscast and seven other weekly current-events programs. But these programs only take up 405 minutes, or 29 percent, of Fairchild’s airtime, of which more than 100 minutes are repeated content; the rest of its airtime is devoted to talk shows, dramas and entertainment news. By mainstream standards, Fairchild’s news is not good. Yet, the 18-year-old station has long prided itself on operating the only Chinese-Canadian newsroom in the country.

Not anymore. In May 2008, a new 24-hour Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese channel called WOWtv started broadcasting and, like Fairchild, it also has a mixture of reruns and homegrown programs, of which only five are news shows—available via cable for about $4 a month. Despite its promises of more local content, high-definition technology and a younger and fresher staff with innovative ideas, this newborn has yet to do in-the-field reporting. While Fairchild usually has four teams of reporters, WOW just has writers who chop recycled footage into one- or two-minute clips.

So although the launch may be a long-anticipated alternative for Chinese-Canadian audiences, viewers aren’t yet getting value for their cable dollars. If Chinese broadcasters don’t start increasing their reporting and offering unbiased news that affects this immigrant group, they risk contributing to the already existing self-centredness and intolerance of other cultures by some in the Chinese community.

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Fairchild Media Group, a business conglomerate based in Richmond, B.C., with investments in media, information technology, retail and real-estate management, runs Fairchild and the all-Mandarin Talentvision. According to a 2007 study by Ipsos Reid, Canadian Chinese Media Monitor, Fairchild Media reaches more than half of Chinese-Canadian adults in Vancouver and Toronto—the two cities with the highest number of Chinese immigrants.

With the Chinese population in Canada predicted to reach at least 1.8 million by 2017, Chuck Yeung, an elusive businessman originally from Hong Kong with ties to the computer industry, wanted to tap into the gold mine. Yeung’s idea, according to WOW executive producer Joe Tay, was to launch anall-digital TV channel that’s accessible in multimedia platforms for a younger audience.

Currently, some of WOW’s content is available via podcast and live streaming. “We want to extend broadcast beyond the limit of the television so that viewers can watch us through a small screen on their fridges one day.” Tay laughs and glances at his office TV—it’s usually on CNN. Originally a celebrity in Hong Kong, the 47-year-old now arrives at the station around 4 a.m. every morning with a Tim Hortons coffee. He says that WOW is not here to compete, but to offer Chinese-Canadians an alternative. “For the longest time, people had no choice,” he says as he leans back on his chair. “It’s kind of like dating. You can either continue your 20-year-old boring relationship or, hey, look, there’s a younger, fresher, prettier one just right here!”

But clearly, the station wants recognition and ad revenue, which is why it boasts about its investments in broadcast technology and Canadian-made programs: WOW produces more than 50 percent of its content, compared to Fairchild’s 25 percent.

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