Hung Huang is in love: “I’m in the media business because I love content; if I have to sell every page as an advertorial there’s no point in it for me,” she says. She is passionate about inspiring Chinese people to consider modern culture and aesthetics through her China Interactive Media Group (CIMG). “You have the chance to influence the way a lot of people think. To do this in a country where I grew up is incredibly rewarding. It is that – above all else – that drives me to do what I do.”
This commitment gives CIMG a reach beyond that suggested by circulation figures alone for iLook, its flagship fashion magazine, and Time Out in Chinese and English. CIMG’s target niche is small but expanding rapidly on the back of China’s torrid economic growth.
“We don’t do the low-brow stuff. Instead, we approach the new Chinese lifestyle from a cultural perspective,” concludes Hung in the soft American accent she picked up at high school and Vassar College in New York. Hung became one of the first Chinese people to study in America after her mother’s student Mao Zedong got cosy with Richard Nixon in the 1970s.
Bored after a stint trading commodities in the States, Hung returned to China in the early 1990s. Her break came when a friend asked her to run his media company. In 2000 she left commodities to head up CIMG. Celebrity gossip and tall stories, the staples of Chinese mass media, were not her thing. “We wanted to do something different – to participate in the invention of a modern Chinese aesthetic,” she says. “Even Japan, which is pretty conservative, has defined ‘modern Japan’ in terms of lifestyle and culture. That hasn’t happened yet in China.”
Until recently, exploring this niche has been an uphill struggle as the newly wealthy have been interested in pursuing their material wellbeing. New cars, houses and holidays have muscled-out any idea of a uniquely Chinese cultural language. “But in the last year and a half they’re looking for other things, cultural factors,” says Hung, “the Chinese are now looking for cultural identification more than anything else.”
Hung’s iLook aims to explain and explore modern Chinese culture. Time Out on the other hand is purely practical, helping Chinese people, whom Hung says are more settlers than explorers, to navigate the rapid expansion of urban life and its new cultures. The 45-year-old has already dabbled in television, earning fame for her frankness, and disdain for traditional social mores. With the help of her firebrand reputation, Hung is getting CIMG back on screen in new ways.
“We’re developing a programme with Hunan Satellite Television about fashion and lifestyle. We’re also developing cultural tours to take readers to places in Europe. With Time Out the most interesting thing is what we can do in terms of mobile phones.” Hunan has been growing quickly by producing shows appealing to young people, such as the wildly popular Mongolian Cow Yogurt Supergirl Contest where viewers could vote for aspiring singers by SMS.
Hung’s public persona has soared since she began a candid blog addressing, among other things, love and sex, scoring over 50.2 million visits since Valentine’s Day 2006. This makes it the sixth most popular blog on the NASDAQ-listed Sina, China’s leading internet portal.
CIMG is now trying to work out how to profit from China’s bloggers and blogs. Tellingly, iLook’s blog is six times more popular than Time Out’s. Advertising’s potential will become clear over the next few months: in September Sina said it will soon open blogs to advertising, splitting revenue evenly with bloggers such as Hung. It’s a landmark decision, as blogs allow the Chinese to whisper about scandals and air their views publicly for the first time.
Hung nevertheless is convinced that Chinese print media will be in rude health in 10 years’ time: “Print will be big. Print will continue to grow and become much more sophisticated,” states Hung.
Branding is vital to the future of media in China. CIMG tries to infuse its image with trust and honesty. Hung won’t do advertorials: “Listings and reviews are not for sale in Time Out. There is a huge mistrust of the media, especially in terms of official news, but then there is also a certain naivety about what could be true. This makes China so interesting right now.”
Media regulations are vague, conflicting and frequently revised. All media is directly or indirectly owned by the state or the Communist Party. Private media firms, including CIMG, must have an official partner. Intense competition and a hankering for profits are pushing publishers, with a tacit nod from their state partners, to risk the censor’s wrath.
Though the censors’ grip remains tight, only occasionally slipping on political and economic news, they have little to say about CIMG’s magazines so far. Hung thinks many foreigners’ perception of censorship is outdated in any case. Commercialisation has produced thousands of new titles, making the censors’ job increasingly difficult. “Censorship has become a lot more relaxed intentionally – and unintentionally – because they are losing control – the media are constantly pushing the boundaries.”
As an example of the censors’ prudishness, Hung cites her own Time Out. “We have a gay and lesbian section that we would like to expand because the gay and lesbian lifestyle is quite happening in Beijing and Shanghai, but I think adding another two pages might become an issue.” The market’s invisible hand may well cause this to change, however. “I’m not sure who’s more influential: the media or the Politburo at the moment, but I know that the media is the power that is emerging.”
The CIMG empire
CIMG was founded in 2000.
In 2006, total revenue hit $5.5m.
Private owners include Bob Lessin, Vice Chairman of an investment banking firm, and Keith Avell, a private investor.
Time Out Beijing
Time Out Beijing in English
Time Out Shanghai
Time Out Beijing
Chinese media audit
There are around 9,500 government-licensed magazines and newspapers. Many more are unlicensed or illegal.
China Central Television (CCTV) is the biggest broadcaster and the only one with national reach through its 209 stations.
Television goes out on 3,240 channels of which around 3,000 are local, reaching over 460 million televisions.
In large cities foreign TV is common due to the ingenuity of pirate broadcasters and illegal cable networks.
Over 162 million people use the internet; the majority have broadband.
Many more people surf the web wirelessly and many of the 500 million mobile phones are web-enabled.
Xinhua, the state news agency, is probably the world’s largest with over 10,000 journalists based in 31 bureaux in China and 107 worldwide.