Yang Lan’s name may not be a familiar one in the United States, but in her native China, she is a media personality of Oprah-level proportions. After showing up at an open casting call in 1990, Yang was chosen from over one thousand women to be the cohost of a new variety show, Zheng Da. The program had more viewers every week than the combined audiences of the top twenty American shows, but, not content with sidekick status, she switched gears and launched her journalism career with Yang Lan Horizon, a current events series that was one of the first of its kind in China. Yang now serves as the chairwoman of Sun Media Investment Holdings Limited, the multiplatform business empire she created with her husband, Bruno Wu, in 1999. While at the helm of a demanding media corporation, she has continued to create and star in several of her own programs, many of which are on the air at the same time. Yang is widely considered to be China’s wealthiest self-made woman, and Forbes magazine has described her as “one of China’s 50 most successful entrepreneurs.” A fearless businesswoman, Yang has broken through many corporate and cultural barriers and is always trying her hand at something different. “I like creativity,” she said in an interview. “I would rather fail in creating new programs than succeed in making ones from old and tired ideas.”
Born in the Chinese capital of Beijing, Yang’s mother worked as an engineer while her father taught English literature and occasionally acted as the official translator for Premier Zhou Enlai. Although her future would revolve around the medium, Yang watched little television as a child; her family didn’t own a set until she was twelve years old, and even then, there was little Chinese programming. Instead, she concentrated on her schoolwork and secured her acceptance to Beijing Foreign Studies University, one of the country’s most prestigious schools.
In 1990, Yang was in her final year of study when she auditioned for Zheng Da’s host position. She gave a confident audition, explaining that she wanted to be more than a pretty face agreeing with her male counterpart—she wanted to express her own opinions and personality. The director had found the woman for the job. In less than a year, Zheng Da was China’s highest-rated program with 220 million regular viewers. Despite her success, in 1994, Yang walked away from the show in order to pursue a master’s at New York’s Columbia University. While there, she shot the first season of her next project, Yang Lan Horizon. “We wanted to introduce Chinese viewers to American pop culture,” Yang stated. The show bought clips from E! Television programs and asked Chinese entertainers to comment on them.
Horizon was a success, but Yang adopted a different approach for the second season; instead of entertainment, the focus shifted to hard news. New episodes covered some of the biggest problems facing America, including social security and drug addiction, and politicians or journalists frequently dropped by for interviews. Chinese viewers responded instantly to the change, and the ratings skyrocketed. Horizon was syndicated to more than fifty affiliate channels in China, something rarely done in the country then. “My show fit neatly into a major shift in China’s TV viewing habits,” she said at the time. “Ten years ago, television was a novelty. People expected it to deliver entertainment. Today China is changing so much…they want TV that deals with their lives. They want information.”
After completing her degree in 1996, Yang headed back home, and the following year she landed at the Phoenix Chinese Channel. There, she produced and starred in two new shows: These Hundred Years, a nonfiction series about twentieth century China, and Yang Lan Studio, which featured pointed interviews with business and media luminaries. Her programs generated more revenue than anything else on Phoenix, but in 1999 she left the company, seeking more independence and creative control. She and husband Bruno Wu, whom she had met and married while living in New York, founded Sun Television Cybernetworks (SunTV). SunTV, the first history/biography channel in Greater China, set out to bring culture and learning to the massses. “For the less educated in rural areas, [television] may be the only medium,” said Yang. “I feel conscientiously obliged to provide education.” SunTV’s original programming centered around profiles of Chinese people in the news and Western figures like Bill Gates, but thanks to a deal with A&E Networks, most of the broadcasts were dubbed American imports.
Over the past decade, the company has continued to evolve. SunTV eventually became part of a much bigger operation, Sun Media Investment Holdings Limited (SMIH), which has holdings in several different arenas of the media, including television, publishing, and advertising. Forbes magazine named SMIH one of the two hundred best small capital companies in 2001, and thanks to the acquisition of a Hong Kong-based newspaper network, the corporation now owns more than thirty magazines and several newspapers, the economics-focused Observer Star among them. In 2004, the Observer Star became the world’s first Chinese-language financial paper released simultaneously in the world’s biggest Chinese markets (outside of China): Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and North America.
Despite the daily grind of overseeing a major media conglomerate, Yang has still found time to keep up with her on-screen television work. She resurrected Yang Lan Studio in 2001, but this time the emphasis was on profiling modern innovators. According to Lan, its goal was to “describe the individuals, their way of life and character through flesh and blood experiences.” Among other programs, she now hosts Yang Lan One on One and Her Village, both of which are designed to appeal to modern young women. Her Village has even been expanded into a multimedia brand, spawning a website, blog, and online magazine. It is now China’s largest community of professional urban women, reaching over two hundred million people each month.
Yang has also entered the world of philanthropy. In 2005, she founded the Sun Culture Foundation in an effort to raise awareness about poverty and encourage communication among cultures. She is the Goodwill Ambassador of the China Charity Federation and a trustee of the Soong Ching Ling Foundation, which contributes to children’s causes and promotes the unification of China.
Confirming her status as a cultural icon in her country, Yang served as an image ambassador for Beijing in its successful bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics and spoke at China’s final presentation to the International Olympic Committee in Moscow. Madame Figaro China magazine chose her as the “Most Admirable Chinese Woman” of 2005, and the World Human Resource Lab named her one of the “100 Most Powerful Women in China.” Yang has found enormous success as a businesswoman, an entertainer, and a journalist. In her efforts to use media to share culture and enhance communication between the east and west, she stands out as a role model for women who want to achieve across the industry spectrum in an increasingly global society.