Hunan still in game alongside CCTV

Station focusing on entertainment during Olympics

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BEIJING -- What do you do if you're a provincial Chinese broadcaster trying to make a yuan during an Olympics you're not allowed to broadcast?

If you're Hunan Satellite TV, you do what you've always done: create edgy programming and offer it as an alternative to state-run China Central Television.

Hunan TV first gave Olympics host CCTV a run for its ad money in 2005 with hit singing contest "Super Girl Voice," spawning a slew of overnight pop idols.

But combine sports around the clock on seven CCTV channels with near-nationwide reach and talk shows with Chinese athlete-heroes and -- this summer, anyway -- CCTV is a tough act to follow.

"It's a lucky thing for local broadcasters that the Olympics are only 16 days," said Michael Zhang, Beijing-based managing director of Mediacom China, an advertising buyer owned by U.K. ad giant WPP.

Li Hao, Hunan TV's deputy editor in chief, said that the station -- whose influence is disproportionate to its average audience of 55 million viewers -- has not changed its programming strategy during the Games, which end Sunday. With no right to broadcast the Olympics, Li had little choice.

"Our target audience are young people and women, so we still focus on entertainment during the Olympics," Li said on the phone from Changsha, Hunan's capital.

But the station that was chastised by Beijing media regulators for being too commercial with "Super Girls" has again tried to do something completely different.

For the Aug. 6-24 stretch, Hunan TV hired soccer commentator Huang Jianxiang, a man who left CCTV in disgrace in 2006 after blurting support for Italy over Australia in a World Cup qualifier.

Huang has recently hosted the "Olympics Talk Show" at midnight on Hunan TV from behind a table set out on an apartment balcony, the Bird's Nest National Stadium far off in the background. He's been heard berating China's men's soccer team for being knocked out of the competition early, a view widely echoed on the Internet here.

However, Mediacom's Zhang is skeptical of Huang's ability to counter the effect of redirected ad budgets. "One man cannot carry a whole TV station," Zhang said.

Another Hunan TV show that sprouted for the Games is "Happiness Run Forward," hosted by Jiang Hongjie, a woman nicknamed Yo Yo. Chinese contestants brave an extreme obstacle course dressed as superheroes.

At first it was called "Olympics Run Forward" but that was changed to appease Olympics organizers, according to local media reports.

Even after the name change, the variety show was one of Hunan's highest-rated programs in July and August, said Li Zhilan, deputy director of advertising.

The Olympics have had a negative impact on ads because of slashed budgets, Li said. Regular big-brand advertisers on Hunan TV include China Mobile and Mengniu, a giant Inner-Mongolian dairy.

Both Hunan executives said their ratings are good, but numbers from the Nielsen Co. showed the highest recent posting for Huang's show was a 0.6 in Shanghai, and for the YoYo show an 0.8 in Beijing.

"When China wins more gold medals than anybody else, the country will be ready to go back to light entertainment," Zhang of Mediacom said. "That's when the Hunans can shine again. Until then, local broadcasters are just going to have to be patient."