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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: April 2, 2011 NO. 14 APRIL 7, 2011
China's New Storyteller
CCTV Documentary Channel is dedicated to improving the domestic documentary industry

SEEKING BREAKTHROUGH: A still of the documentary film The Bund 1943-1945 (CHUNYUAN/CFP)

In recent years, China has attracted increasing attention of world documentary filmmakers. The annual Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival (GZDOC), which started in 2003, is the country's most important international documentary industry event. In December 2010, the Eighth GZDOC assembled 576 films from 58 countries and regions, among which Chinese films accounted for 46 percent, a number indicative of a recovering documentary market.

"The output of Chinese documentaries has reached 1,000 hours per year, and accumulated to about 13,000 to 15,000 hours in all. Since 2005, outstanding documentary series, such as The Forbidden City and Rediscovering the Yangtze River, caused a great sensation, and even sold well overseas," said Jin Delong, an official of the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT), at the Eighth GZDOC.

TV has been playing an increasingly important role in driving China's documentary industry. Chinese TV viewers' demand for excellent documentaries is growing too. The debut of a documentary series on CCTV in 2006, The Rise of the Great Powers, aroused people's interest in documentaries once again. This series depicted the historical process of how nations, such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, France, Germany and Japan, grew to be great powers, and summarized the law and characteristics for the rise of a nation. After its debut, CCTV published a set of books with the same name, which also became a best seller that year.

SARFT statistics show there were 272 TV stations and 2,087 TV channels on the Chinese mainland as of May 2010. TV coverage reached 97.23 percent of the population, over 1.2 billion Chinese audiences. A massive viewership means huge potential for the Chinese documentary market.

China's rise has also piqued overseas interest. Films and TV series about China have been received well by foreign audiences. Larger numbers of foreign filmmakers were coming to China to film the traditional culture, magnificent geography and diversified society, bringing opportunities for international cooperation between the Chinese documentary industry and the rest of the world.

The Central Government also gave policy support to the reviving industry. In December 2010, SARFT issued a policy to help advance and improve homegrown Chinese documentaries. It was considered the policy showed China's resolution to build up a prosperous documentary market.

SARFT also encourages TV stations to open documentary channels and programs, and makes efforts to introduce more Chinese documentary films to cinemas. Besides, new media such as Internet, mobile TV and cellphones, are being added to broadcast documentaries. The policy also said that strengthening regulation of the Chinese documentary market would be a major task in near future.


Although spring has come to the Chinese domestic documentary industry, challenges still remain.

Foreign documentaries have dominated the Chinese market for a long time. Several years ago, when Chinese documentaries declined, foreign documentary makers quickly found opportunities to enter the Chinese market. In 2005, the U.S. Discovery Channel held a large promotion tour around China in collaboration with Beijing TV station, Shanghai Media Group and Guangdong TV station. Now a large number of Discovery documentaries are played on Chinese TV channels.

In addition, the appetite and appreciation level of Chinese audiences have been raised considerably by the quality of foreign documentaries. For example, the series Walking With Dinosaurs produced by BBC gave viewers a true to life experience.

The time length of overseas documentaries playing on Chinese TV channels has reached 15,000 to 20,000 hours per year, while homegrown films merely account for 1,000 hours.

Until now, homegrown documentaries have not been strong enough to compete with international rivals, such as the Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel, who hold many advantages in the documentary industry, including abundant funds, advanced technology, and widespread marketing networks.

The Chinese documentary industry is, however, narrowing the gap through cooperation with international corporations. Wild China, a popular documentary played by the CCTV Documentary Channel, was created in cooperation between the BBC Natural History Unit and CCTV. The two sides shared copyright and shot film together. "What is more, the cooperation could offer the funds, resources and marketing channels overseas, which we lacked before," Liu said.

Another major challenge for the Chinese documentary industry is to establish a developed market, unified standards, improved administrative mechanisms, stable broadcasting channels and an integrated industry chain.

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