INTERNATIONAL ISSUES: China braces itself after airtime auction brews up a storm

The battle for prime slots on CCTV is set to shake up media, Helen Deal reports.

The battle for prime slots on CCTV is set to shake up media, Helen

Deal reports.



Even in normal times, the Chinese media market is an uncertain

place.



But this year, media buyers are bracing themselves for even more turmoil

after a single cataclysmic day three months ago.



The eighth of November began like any other. Except that it was the day

planned for the annual auction by China Central Television of its prime

advertising space.



CCTV is the country’s only national network, supplying around 20 per

cent of China’s advertising airtime. It began holding auctions in 1995

to try to win the highest possible prices for its 32 most sought-after

slots (one price gets the same time each day for a year). The prices won

are also used in full ratecard negotiations, usually held a week

later.



However, on this occasion things got well out of hand. As usual,

interested parties secured tickets to attend in a civilised way and

submitted sealed bids for the airtime, most of which is in and around

the evening news and weather.



What had changed was the wellspring of demand for CCTV’s prime

slots.



Rumours had been circulating that last year’s winner - the proud owner

of a five-second spot after the news - had increased sales five-fold

over the past 12 months. Frenzied advertisers, drawn not only by the

impressive sales figures but also by the prestige value - or ’face’ -

gained by taking such an eminent position on a national station, bid

huge amounts for the auctioned spots. The winner, a local wine company

called QinChi, is said to have bid a sum equivalent to its phone number

for the opportunity.



By close of play, CCTV had secured almost as much money for those 4.66

minutes a day as it had for the whole of last year’s advertising - 2.4

billion renminbi compared with RMB2.8 billion for the whole of 1996,

according to estimates by Zenith Media. Or to put it another way, at

dollars 1.2 million a minute, the top spot was only half as expensive as

some of the costliest ads on earth - those created for Superbowl

Sunday.



Good news for CCTV coffers, perhaps. However, the auction also provoked

a near riot as brokers struggled for a stake in the lucrative deals.



Worse, the Chinese authorities were stung into investigating whether

such a bidding system should continue.



As an ironic final twist to the story, the fiasco also helped open a

debate on whether alcohol should be advertised on TV at all - in other

words, QinChi could be booted off air anyway.



However, the real and most chilling consequence of that day in November

may not yet have been felt. What it did, media buyers say, was alert

media owners to the ’real’ worth, or at any rate the potential worth, of

their airtime.



Other media owners have already begun switching to an auction system of

their own. And although the only one to have gone through with it -

Beijing TV - did not cause a similar storm, the media market is

preparing itself for the worst.



What is clear, according to Zenith’s regional client services director,

James Greet, is that the face gained by paying for the best slot has

become all-important in China.



’It’s a completely different way of looking at things than in the West,

where we tend to believe the position enhances the message, but the

message itself is more important,’ he says.



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