Official figures for the advertising industry in China have recently been released. During 1997 total spending by advertisers reached US$3.2bn; this was 28 per cent higher than in 1996 and exceeded in Asia only by Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Australia. In 1998 exchange rate movements in Asia and the economic slowdown are likely to promote China's ranking.
The financial success has had several consequences. First, more and more stations have opened up, attracted by the promise of advertising riches. A recent estimate suggested 2,700 channels were broadcasting across the nation, double the number in the US.
Moves are now afoot to reduce this number, a large proportion of which are operated by unlicensed, get-rich-quick merchants. Jiangsu announced last year that 97 of the 212 stations said to be operating in the province would be closed down. Jiangxi authorities identified 151 out of 242 channels for closure and Hunan province said 210 out of 402 would be shuttered.
A second consequence is the vast improvement in programming quality for the average viewer. When television was launched in China 40 years ago last month, inaugural programmes ranged from a `chat show' entitled `Model workers discuss the political significance of carrying out the Great Leap Forward campaign' to documentaries such as `Going to the countryside'. Today, both quality and choice has leapt ahead, with most urban households able to receive 10 or more channels.
A third consequence is advertising clutter surpassed only by the Philippines in Asia. There, up to 18 minutes of advertising time is allowed every hour, compared with the more usual 10 minutes an hour permitted in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and 12 minutes in Thailand.
On average in 1997, of the 180 channels monitored by the media monitoring company X&L, only the 25 re-broadcasting Hong Kong television stations TVB and ATV averaged more than 10 minutes
an hour between 5.00pm and midnight.
Such an average masks what is going on at prime times for viewing advertising after 7.30pm. Although national channel CCTV-1 rarely exceeds 11 minutes of advertising in any hour, the main stations in Shanghai can get as high as 18 minutes, as can many of the stations re-broadcasting Hong Kong signals to southern mainland cities. The fact that advertising breaks in Hong Kong only total 10 minutes suggests strongly that major inroads are being made by advertisers into viewers' enjoyment by simply cutting into programme time.
Cramming in the messages
Another dimension of the problem is that many of the spots are much shorter in China than is common elsewhere. Some channels ran an average of 40 spots an hour in the 8.00pm-9.00pm slot during 1997 a lot of exhortations and messages for any consumer to absorb. One might expect 15-20 messages in a typical hour of UK commercial television.
In Zenith Media's annual survey of Chinese consumers across 40 cities, it was found that some 61 per cent of consumers agreed with the statement that advertising helped them to choose what to purchase. A little over half agreed that it raised their opinion of the company advertising, although only 45 per cent thought it was associated with higher quality products.
So the messages do still seem to be getting through, as the experience of many multinational corporations advertising in China has shown.
But a properly policed legal framework will need to be enforced more rigorously to ensure that television stations don't get carried away by their success and bite the hand that feeds them.
Andrew Green is Director of Strategic Media Resources at Zenith Media Asia.