BEIJING – AOL Time Warner Inc. announced a landmark deal Monday that will make it the first foreign television broadcaster in China, in exchange for carrying Chinese state television's English-language channel on U.S. cable systems.
AOL Time Warner is getting a foothold in the rapidly developing Chinese television market, which foreign broadcasters are eager to break into. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. is also trying to negotiate a similar arrangement with China, where nearly every household owns a television and viewers number in the hundreds of millions.
The deal is also a turning point for China's communist officials. They regard television as a key propaganda tool and strictly control it, though millions of Chinese already watch broadcasts from abroad on illegal satellite dishes. Beijing appeared to be willing to relax those controls slightly in exchange for getting access to American audiences.
AOL Time Warner relies heavily on the U.S. market for its media businesses - which include Time magazine, HBO, CNN, AOL and the Warner Bros. film and music studio - and it has been stepping up its efforts to expand overseas.
Under the terms of the deal, AOL's Chinese-language channel CETV would be carried on cable systems in the southeastern province of Guangdong beginning next year. It will be the first time that a foreign broadcaster reaches Chinese audiences with the government's approval. CETV, based in Hong Kong, already is seen in Taiwan, Singapore and elsewhere in Asia.
CETV's programming is a mix of Chinese entertainment shows, cartoons, game shows, movies and sports. It also carries versions of some U.S. shows like ``Miami Vice'' and the cartoon ``Johnny Bravo'' dubbed into Chinese.
Tricia Primrose, an AOL Time Warner spokeswoman, said the channel carries no news programs. She had no details on whether the agreement includes provisions for Chinese censorship of CETV programming.
In exchange, the Chinese government's English-language channel 9 will be seen by American audiences in New York City, Los Angeles and Houston. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Gerald Levin, AOL's chief executive, said in a prepared statement that the deal was a ``significant step in the growing relationship between AOL Time Warner and the people of China.''
Zhao Huayong, president of China Central Television, said it was a ``milestone, which has turned a new page in China's TV industry.''
Viewers in Guangdong can already see television broadcasts from neighboring Hong Kong. The former British colony is not covered by central government censorship, and its television stations are livelier - and their news reporting more aggressive - than state-run mainland media.
Channel 9, the only English language channel put out by China's state broadcaster, resembles a less adventuresome version of U.S. public broadcasting channels, with an emphasis on educational and cultural programs.
It carries a mix of news, music and cooking shows, documentaries on nature and travel, Chinese lessons and sports. Broadcasting officials have expressed hope that arranging to have Channel 9 shown in the United States could change American attitudes about China.
Yet CCTV-9 will have difficulty competing for attention with scores of American cable channels. Its program can be interesting - especially nature and travel documentaries - but production quality is uneven and shows are staid and slow-paced compared with U.S. television.