CHINESE GET AN EYEFUL, EVEN ‘CALIFORNIA GIRLS’
Visitors to China find it a wondrous place where memorials of the past coexist with ambitious plans for the future. But will that future also include China’s very own Hollywood style TV moguls?
Baby . . . sweetheart . . . Let’s do lunch. . . . Take my wife. . . .
Pwease! All right, let’s not get carried away. A Los Angeles academic who specializes in TV did not exactly find the Polo Lounge East on a recent visit to the Chinese People’s Republic. Far from it.
In meeting in Peking with about 100 television producers and directors, however, Robert Vianello did encounter great enthusiasm for American TV and great curiosity about our broadcast system.
“They were not hung up on ideological conflict,” Vianello said. “They love the United States, and they want to come to Hollywood to make money, learn about television and become famous directors.”
Vianello, an assistant professor of broadcasting at California State University, Los Angeles, and Nicholas K. Browne, an associate professor of film and TV at UCLA, were invited by the state-run Chinese Central Television to address the Chinese and show them American video wares.
The Chinese broadcast system is three-pronged, consisting of national, university and local networks, Vianello said. The typical TV day lasts about six hours.
No wonder his audience was astounded by the cable-TV demonstration tape he showed them, an array of the 35 channels available on his local cable system. “About the 10th channel, they started buzzing,” he said. “They couldn’t believe that there were that many programs.”
The nearest thing to a music video that Vianello encountered on Chinese TV was a female singing in a forest, with idyllic cutaways to the trees. Vianello showed the Chinese some of our music videos, including Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” and David Lee Roth’s fleshy rendition of “California Girls.”
“Before we put it on, the translator asked if anyone wanted to leave the room,” Vianello said. “No one left. I watched their faces while it was on, and they showed rapt attention--either that, or disbelief.”
Vianello asked for feedback. “They thought it was too risque for Chinese TV, but said they were more sophisticated and it didn’t bother them.”
In fact, two Chinese university professors Vianello met in Peking asked if it were true that some American films contained nudity. “They said it was only natural, and wanted films like that in China, even though pornography is illegal there.”
As for TV comedy, Vianello showed examples of Milton Berle and “I Love Lucy.” The Chinese liked them a lot. He showed them “Ozzie and Harriet.” “They couldn’t relate to them,” said Vianello.
He also showed the famous “All in the Family” episode in which Edith nearly is raped by an intruder. “They felt it dealt with real problems, and they wished they could do programs of social import like that,” Vianello said.
The Chinese also were impressed with “The Burning Bed,” a TV movie starring Farrah Fawcett as a woman who killed her estranged husband after he had continually battered her. Impressed, indeed.
“They were watching this high-impact scene when she was getting beaten by her husband,” Vianello said. “Suddenly, there was a break for a commercial for a hair product. They couldn’t believe that this dramatic moment would be interrupted by a commercial--they laughed, they moaned, they started to yell.”
Just like American viewers.
Chinese TV also has commercials of a sort, according to Vianello--TV ads for pens or farm implements or steel, clustered at specific times of day.
He showed his audience examples of American commercials, finding that the Chinese were fascinated by the techniques of selling and persuasion. And they hardly could believe the high production values.
“I showed them the Apple Computer commercial from 1984 that won a Clio award,” Vianello said. “It’s the one where a woman is chased by Orwellian drones and goes into a gray room where all these people are sitting in front of a big screen that’s telling them what to do. Then she throws a hammer at the screen. Well, they had never seen anything with that high a production value before.”
The Chinese were also shocked to hear about the soaring production costs of an hourlong program in prime time.
“When I told them that as a producer, after their third successful season with a series they still would not be making any profit because of deficit financing, the whole room buzzed for about 10 minutes,” Vianello said. “I wanted to dispel the myth that Hollywood is a mecca where you always make untold riches. But when I told them that in the fourth year, they would have finally made enough programs to go into syndication, where they could make 10 to 15 times their original investment, they began to see the logic of it.”
The Chinese whom Vianello met did not conform to the popular image of Chinese as doctrinaire Communists. He asked his interpreter how he planned to advance his career in Chinese TV; would he join the party?
The man replied that he’d rather join a TV association. “These people are Third World yuppies,” Vianello said.