22 February 2019
CCTV's First Lesson program has come under fire from parents who found the program replete with commercialism and done in bad taste. Photo: CCTV
CCTV's First Lesson program has come under fire from parents who found the program replete with commercialism and done in bad taste. Photo: CCTV

How a TV program for students turned into a PR disaster

Every year since 2008, on the evening of Sept. 1, tens of millions of mainland primary and secondary school students, along with their parents, have to sit tight and watch the TV program First Lesson.

The program is jointly produced by the Ministry of Education and the China Central Television (CCTV) as a vehicle to promote patriotism and loyalty to the Communist Party among schoolchildren across the nation.

In order to “unify ideology”, the Ministry of Education routinely issues an official notice every year ordering schools across the mainland to organize their students and parents to watch the program together on Sept. 1.

To make sure students and parents are abiding by the order, some schools would even require students to take pictures of themselves watching the program and then upload them to the internet or submit a written review of the program.

However, this year’s First Lesson has come under fire from parents who found the program replete with commercialism and done in bad taste.  As a result, amid mounting public pressure, the CCTV made a rare public apology.

The parents were so angry because, first, the program was supposed to start at 8pm sharp, but because there was a long, uninterrupted series of TV commercials selling products ranging from mattresses and soy milk machines to home appliances and toothpaste, it did not start until 8:12pm.

Moreover, many parents complained about the show’s content. Aside from a handful of truly distinguished guests – such as Wu Guanghui, chief designer of China’s first jumbo jet airliner C919; Xue Qikun, vice president of Tsinghua University; Jie Hailong, a renowned documentary photographer; and Wang Tongjing, an abacus and mental arithmetic world champion – the program featured quite a number of pop stars and celebrities.

Many viewers did not approve of the appearance of Jackie Chan and singer-actor Wang Yuan on the program; they thought the show business personalities were anything but inspiring role models to children.

Chan is regarded by some as a bad father who has failed to set a good example to his own children, while Wang Yuan is seen by others as a sissy.

In a statement of apology, the CCTV takes the blame for running too many commercials before the start of First Lesson, and promises to work aggressively to improve future editions of the program.

The Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee has ordered schools to raise students’ awareness about patriotism and loyalty to the party by encouraging them to watch First Lesson.

Apparently, the CCTV just wanted to the make the show more entertaining in order to draw more advertisements and boost its ratings. Its efforts backfired, however.

Amid the public uproar, the government broadcaster is unlikely to invite any more pop stars to next year’s First Lesson, and will probably restore the pure political propaganda nature of the show.

As the repressive political environment in the country has continued to intensify in recent years, many popular mainland TV programs have become increasingly politicized.

For example, the CCTV New Year’s Gala, one of the most watched TV shows in the mainland, has been increasingly dominated by Communist Party propaganda.

I believe that what mainland parents should be truly up against is not the commercialism that has crept into the program, but that they and their children are being forced to watch the show every year under official orders.

At least, TV commercials don’t follow the same rigid patterns that characterize political propaganda.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 8

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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