As a veteran CCTV anchorman, Bai Yansong is a familiar face to millions of TV viewers, a tireless advocate for social justice who brings his wit and intellect to bear on the popular news program "Focus Report."
Arriving in town recently to promote "Behind the Scenes of Focus Report," a book written by the show's producer, Liang Jianzeng, Bai takes time out to discuss his new program "Timeline" with reporter Zhao Feifei
For nine years, China Central TV's "Focus Report" has probed thousands of news stories, using investigative reporting techniques to expose problems in Chinese society.
Similar in some respects to the U.S. TV news magazine "Sixty Minutes," the program broadcasts investigative reports on salient social issues.
"Focus Report" producer Liang Jianzeng recently published "Behind the Scenes of Focus Report," a non-fiction account of the production process and personalities involved in the popular program.
Much of the book is dedicated to the work of anchor Bai Yansong. The tables are turned, as Bai is asked the questions he would normally pose.
Airing celebrity interviews, policy debates and topical discussions, "Focus Report" has deservedly gained a reputation as a voice of the people, as Liang notes in the book.
The program is so influential, writes Liang, that he is often approached by individuals who either offer him "incentives" to kill a story, or give him tip-offs to generate one.
Bai, 34, has anchored the program for eight years, and is known for his sharp wit and intellect. His clever comebacks and rapid-fire retorts delight audiences, and he also has the ability to fire off criticisms and directly probe questions at powerful figures. For Bai, a long tenure as a CCTV news anchor and commentator seems assured.
"Anyone whose face is on CCTV for a month is an automatic celebrity," Bai says self-mockingly, but he has a point. As China's largest television station, CCTV enjoys the highest ratings in news broadcasting on the Chinese mainland. Still, it takes more than just good looks and the ability to read from a teleprompter to make the grade in TV-land.
His hard-hitting questions, acerbic wit and evident wisdom have all contributed to making "Focus Report" one of the most-watched news commentary programs in China, drawing the attention and support of national leaders like Premier Zhu Rongji.
While bai plays a central role in broadcast news, he says that books offer something that television cannot: "With a book, you can digest it at your leisure, and read sections repeatedly. A book is a precious thing to me. I like to go to bookstores. Buying books is a literary process in itself," he says.
Asked which book has influenced him the most, he replies with his trademark wit: "The Xinhua Dictionary," he says, cracking a wicked smile.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Bai gives "Behind the Scenes" a glowing review.
"It's a well-paced, engaging read, for journalists and non-journalists alike. It makes a strong case for serious TV reporting. Liang adeptly weaves his storysintosa narrative that will hold the reader's attention to the last page." he says. "'Focus Report' was a landmark in China's TV broadcasting history, not necessarily because it was the best, but because it was the first. It was so popular because it was the only one of its kind. Now every local station offers a news commentary program - and most do a great job. So we have had to raise the bar as well, looking for stories with depth and approaching them from different angles."
As a pioneering program, "Focus Report" also serves as a proving ground for some of the best anchors in television: names like Jing Yidan, Shui Junyi and Fang Hongjin are all "Focus Report" veterans. But Bai is in a class by himself. Through his on-the-spot reporting, viewers have experienced once-in-a-lifetime moments like the Hong Kong handover, the return of Macau, the 50th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, the millennium celebrations and the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He has become a cultural icon in the broadcasting world and one of the most recognizable faces in the country. Everyone, from taxi drivers to farmers, urban professionals to senior officials, could effortlessly spot him in a crowd.
Yet with the high profile and recognition factor come larger-than-life expectations.
"I never look at it as a burden," he says. "I see it as part of the process. I love what I do. I meet interesting people and ask them questions, and hopefully the show will have an impact. I'm living out a dream and I get paid for it."
But that doesn't mean he's going to keep on doing the same thing. "Someone once said that the sun starts to go down when it's at its peak. I often tell myself: Why not look for a new horizon and let the sun rise again?" he says.
And with Bai, it's no sooner said than done. His "new horizon" comes in the form of his new program, "Timeline," which he began producing and hosting after a yearlong sabbatical. Obviously inspired by Ted Koppel's "Nightline," aired on the U.S. TV network ABC, the program brings together experts on a current topic of interest, which, says Bai, gives the show an extra dimension.
The show boasts an impressive lineup of guests, including star basketball player Wang Zhizhi, World Trade Organization Director-General Mike Moore, and senior officials of the South Korean and Japanese football associations, and the NBA.
"Tv broadcasting here is still in its youth," he says. "We have a lot to learn from our foreign counterparts in terms of production. Borrowing ideas from other countries is an inevitable step."
In that vein, Bai studied Koppel's style for a year and "Timeline" spent 100,000 yuan (US,000) on market surveys to determine the show's timespot and who would act as host.
Bai says he would like "Timeline" to become a nighttime television staple - on a par with "Nightline" - and is aiming for a calm and discerning voice in an age marked by information overload.