US TV shows removed from popular streaming websites
The removal of several popular American TV series from Chinese video streaming sites over the weekend may indicate stricter online monitoring to come, said experts.
The move comes despite the considerable investment these streaming sites have made in foreign content to meet growing demand within China for foreign-made entertainment.
From Saturday, popular shows The Big Bang Theory, The Good Wife, NCIS and The Practice were no longer available on tv.sohu.com, youku.com, and v.qq.com. The shows were all purchased legally for viewing in China, and are not pirated.
On tv.sohu.com, the message "Sorry, the episode is not available at the moment due to policy reasons" was found on the page for The Big Bang Theory.
A public relations officer with tv.sohu.com Sunday said it was inconvenient to comment when approached by the Global Times.
American and British TV dramas are increasingly popular in China with video streaming sites stepping up their import. In 2011, the cost for importing The Big Bang Theory was $150,000 per episode, proving that importing shows has become big business.
Charles Zhang, CEO of sohu.com and its video unit, said in January that imported TV dramas have several episodes which allows more time for advertising.
He estimated that video site companies would pay $100-150 million this year for American TV shows. By 2016, if there are 10 successful video sites in China, purchases from the American entertainment industry alone could total $500 million, Zhang said, the Associated Press reported.
In March, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television issued a notice on reinforcing content examination over online audio and visual programs.
According to the notice, imported American and British dramas can only be broadcast after the companies examine the shows to ensure content is appropriate. Programs which satisfy this process will be reported to provincial-level branches of the broadcast watchdog, reported news portal sina.com.
Any company which violates the notice will be punished. This could range from a warning to financial penalties. Serious violations may lead to a five-year suspension of operations in this sector.
The Beijing News quoted Zhang Yi, a staff member from Letv, a Beijing-based video site, who said that sites need to examine imported TV dramas for erotic, political and violent content. Most Chinese video sites have the same standards for content.
The plot is carefully studied, and therefore "there would be few political problems" for these shows, said Zhang. A website will usually cut erotic or violent scenes, or pixilate any nudity.
Fans expressed confusion as to why these particular shows, three dramas and one comedy, were blocked.
"There are scenes in The Big Bang Theory which mock China, but they are just like everyday jokes we make," said Wendy Wang, 29, an American TV fan in Shanghai, adding she does not take that seriously. "The Americans do self-mockery, why can't we stand up to a little mocking?"
"Or maybe there are too many blue jokes," said Chen Kan, 25, a fan from Ningbo, Zhejiang Province. Chen told the Global Times that he believes more foreign dramas may be blocked.
Be Chenggong, a film and drama critic, told the Global Times Sunday that the removal of the shows may indicate that authorities are imposing stricter online monitoring.
From 2012, dramas produced by online streaming sites became very popular, but suffered after they were censored due to their racy content and bold erotic scenes, said Be.
As this content declined, domestic video sites turned to popular foreign shows to woo the audience back.
In a nation without a rating system, imported dramas are available to all ages in China. Yet some content may not be suitable to all, which is perhaps why these four shows have been targeted, Be noted.
The shows are prime time hits in the United States, and are broadcast on major free-to-air channels between 8 and 10 pm, except for The Practice, which ceased production 10 years ago.
Despite the new restrictions, this will not affect the majority of foreign TV fans, said Chen, as most download from unauthorized websites, where there is more choice and no advertising.
China's online video sites make most of their money from the advertising that accompanies free-to-watch content. China online video revenue hit 2.85 billion yuan ($470 million) in the second quarter of 2013, up 43 percent from a year earlier, according to iResearch. The major catalyst for this growth was rising advertising revenue, AP reported.