[UPDATE]: Turns out TBBT was bought by China state media, too. So it is plain robbery, as many netizens predicted.
“For policy reasons, the service is temporarily unavailable.”
That’s what millions of Chinese fans saw during the past weekend when they went to iQiyi, Youku, Tudou or Sohu, China’s leading streaming sites, for the latest episodes of “The Big Bang Theory”, “The Good Wife”, “NCIS” and “The Practice”.
Last Friday, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) ordered the above-mentioned 4 US TV shows to be taken off streaming sites, in proceeding with new regulations that aimed at closing loopholes that allowed foreign shows to thrive on the Chinese Internet. From now, all foreign TV shows need to be “approved” before being aired online, which subjects streaming websites to the same censors as China’s conventional TV stations.
Though websites in China routinely receive orders from the SAPPRFT to take down “inappropriate content,” the move still took many by surprise. First, the SAPPRFT usually allows a period of buffering time before a new regulation goes full blown, but the current order was put into effect with no prior notice. And more importantly, the regulators typically give a reason for why certain content needs to be “cleansed” from the web, more often than not due to something deemed to be salacious, violent or too politically-sensitive, or copyright violations, but the current order was given without a reason.
A backlash is most definitely in order. In China, fans of US TV shows are mostly likely to be well-educated and better-off young urbanites, who also happen to be the most vocal group online, or influencers of online public opinions, if you will. “Beijing just switched to North Korean mode.” Many of them sarcastically commented.
The action has triggered as much fury as confusion. The most puzzling of all is the order to take down “The Big Bang Theory”, the debut of which has led to a renaissance of US TV shows in China – the previous peak of US TV show popularity was “Friends”. If “The Good Wife” and “The Practice” can be said to have touched Beijing’s sensitive nerves of pushing (or lack of thereof) rule of law, and “NCIS” can be accused of having “vulgar content,” what about the BBT, a show about 4 nerds?
“Why BBT? It is probably the most ‘innocent’ US TV show ever, with 4 scientists who put science and national aerospace development ahead of personal gains – exactly the values that Beijing wants to promote. The main character is still a virgin at the end of the 6th season!” One netizen 假张 angrily asked.
What adds to the confusion is the fact that political drama “House of Cards,” which touches on some of the toughest challenges Beijing is facing, such as corruption and US-China relation, somehow escaped the censors. Is it because Wang Qishan, secretary of China’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, openly said he loved the show and was a fan?
The double standards of how censors select their targets in China don’t just stop there. Around the same time of take-down order, China Central Television announced that it will start featuring “Game of Thrones.” It’s completely unexpected given Beijing’s recent campaign against “erotic” content. The question that pops up in everybody’s mind is: Are the interests of ordinary viewers and private companies once again compromised because the state also wants a slice of the cake?
What’s also unclear is the motive. Many netizens have already openly expressed frustration that they now are forced to go back to downloading illegal pirated content. It took many years for streaming websites in China to shift from pirated foreign TV shows and movies to the current licensed content bought directly from foreign networks. In fact, offering free, legal and up-to-date foreign TV shows has been a key marketing pitch for many Chinese streaming sites to lure in more users. The SAPPRFT’s latest move may lead to another business model change in China’s online streaming industry.
The most unexpected impact, however, may be on social stability. US TV shows, and South Korean and Japanese shows as well for that matter, provide the perfect distraction that keeps China’s urban middle class engaged and occupied, who, otherwise, would very willingly participate in political discussions online. And they are more liberal and pro-democracy than not.