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Dhanin Chearavanont

Dhanin Chearavanont (20): The TV program that changed China

I came to visit China quite frequently, and at times I would flip through the local TV channels. The programming was, in a word, boring. Perhaps I still had an itch from my childhood, when I wanted to become a movie director, but I began wondering whether it was possible to broadcast programs in China that were both interesting and informative.

A poster for "The Chia Tai Variety Show," China's longest-running entertainment TV show

Among my Taiwanese friends was a man named Pin Yung Ongg, a pioneer in Taiwan's TV world. He started out as an official at a radio station and worked his way up the corporate ladder, helping found Taiwanese TV station CTV. He also lived in Japan for many years as the Tokyo representative of Taiwanese media companies.

I began investing in Taiwan in the 1960s and visited there frequently on business. An associate introduced me to Mr. Ongg, and we quickly became close friends.

Mr. Ongg was a very shrewd producer. In the 1980s, nobody in Chinese society knew foreign TV programs as well he did. When I set up production companies in Hong Kong and Shanghai, I chose him to serve as chairman.

In short order we had arranged to create a program for CCTV, China's public broadcaster, and act as its producer and sponsor. What we came up with was "Zheng Da Zong Yi," or "The Chia Tai Variety Show."

For each episode, an audience was invited to the studio, and the show's host would discuss various events taking place around the country or elsewhere in the world. This talk show-style format was already familiar in the West, but people in China had never seen anything like it.

First aired in April 1990, the program was broadcast once a week. Its theme song was written by Mr. Ongg himself and was sung by his daughter Judy Ongg, an actress and singer who has had a number of hit songs in Japan.

As the show's host, we hired Yang Lan, a 22-year-old woman from the English department of the Beijing Foreign Studies University. Viewers were enchanted by Yang and the elegant clothes she wore each week. It must have been quite a sight for audiences used to seeing older announcers read out the news with a stiff face.

The program had a segment called "Wonders of the World" that included video clips of interesting events from other countries. In those days, very few people in China had any exposure to the outside world, but our program gave them a taste of what it would be like to go abroad. For many, this sparked a desire to travel or even study overseas.

"The Chia Tai Variety Show" proved to be incredibly popular. According to some estimates, it attracted between 500 million and 600 million viewers each week, while the theme song became a huge hit.

We also began broadcasting a foreign movie every week, under the name "Chia Tai Theater." This made me feel I had, in some small way, realized my childhood dream of becoming a movie director. More importantly, "The Chia Tai Variety Show" and "Chia Tai Theater" played a big role in opening the eyes of the Chinese people to the outside world.

Some years later, Mr. Ongg retired, but "The Chia Tai Variety Show" was still on the air, making it China's longest-running TV program. As a result of its success, even people who don't know the company know the name Zheng Da.

The program's first host, Ms. Yang, later studied in the U.S., and I helped pay her expenses. While on a business trip, I was able to visit her in Washington during that time. In the years since, she has earned a reputation as a newscaster and was also briefly active in the political world, as a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Dhanin Chearavanont is chairman of the Charoen Pokphand Group.

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