Too much skin in the game

Are censors starting to get to grips with online TV sites?

Lena Lai w

Lene Lai has caused a stir with her frisky performance

“There’s no damn business like show business,” jazz singer Billie Holiday once quipped, “You have to smile just to keep from throwing up.”

China’s entertainment world has its fair share of dirty dealings. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a new series that offers a “behind-the-scenes look” at the inner workings of the industry has grabbed attention. Behind the Glory, a drama available only on LeTV, an online video site, has collected over 100 million views since it was released in mid-February.

Part of the reason for the buzz: the show is set in Taiwan (Wu Zongxian, a director and producer, is also one of the best-known talk-show hosts on the island). Liu Bing, producer of Behind the Glory, noted that many of the plot lines in the series are adapted from “real stories” that happened in the Taiwanese entertainment.

“An online show needs to meet the interests of internet users. There is curiosity about the entertainment industry, and we aim to tell stories about it,” says Liu.

With that proviso, there seems to be quite a lot of backstabbing in Taipei’s showbiz scene, as well as a high propensity to flirt and trade sexual favours. One of the tales is about a group of actresses who find their way to stardom by – mostly – seduction. In the first episode, starlet Fei Fei (played by Lene Lai) hooks a film boss by taking off her knickers and thrusting them into his trembling grasp. In the second episode, she takes it up a notch by bedding him. Apple Daily says the scene features “several minutes of intense making-out but zero plot line” (more of an observation than a criticism, it seems). But the Hong Kong-based tabloid also questions how a show that is so sexually suggestive got past the censors in China at all.

The reason is that online video sites have faced much less oversight than terrestrial TV channels. As we noted in WiC228, Sohu was even able to stream Netflix’s House of Cards. online. The surprise was that the US political drama – which included references to corruption in China, territorial disputes with Japan, and Chinese cyber-espionage – aired without any cuts.

But is the freewheeling era for internet video sites over?

News emerged last week that Chinese authorities are looking to strengthen censorship of audio-visual content on the internet, according to the Hollywood Reporter. Internet companies will be required to obtain censorship licenses by employing government-approved censors to review content and then monitor material appropriately before it is broadcast, according to a statement from China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Operators of online video services that stream unapproved content will be issued with warnings. Serious offenders risk fines or operational suspension for up to five years.

The move could have a major impact on online video sites which have thrived as an alternative to some of China’s more anodyne TV offerings. Revenue from online video sites rose 42% to Rmb12.8 billion ($2.06 billion) last year, according to iResearch, which expects another doubling in sales by 2017. While all of the 3,000-plus TV stations are state-owned and subject to pre-existing rules on appropriate programming, online video sites have previously been left to monitor themselves. As a result, some of the most popular series from overseas were made available online but not on Chinese television.

Part of the reason online video has avoided interference is simply because censors have been surprised by the sudden take-off in demand for the medium. They’ve also been overwhelmed by the amount of video content appearing on the internet. “[Providers] just put their content up online. They submit a notice to SARFT that it’s up and then SARFT is supposed to follow through,” says Robert Cain, author of the blog chinafilmbiz. “They have not been able to keep up with the flow.”

But the regulators now look more determined to impose themselves on the sector. That could mean that American shows like the zombie series The Walking Dead and Michael Sheen’s drama about a sex doctor Masters of Sex – both of which have attracted a strong following online – may not be around for much longer. Pessimists say that up to 80% of US cable shows could be banned from streaming on Chinese sites because of content that is deemed unfavourable.

Still, it doesn’t mean the online video sites will be devoid of foreign dramas. China News Service reckons that light US sitcoms like 2 Broke Girls won’t be affected, for instance, while South Korean and Japanese dramas, which tend to be weepy love stories, are expected to stay on the right side of the ‘taste’ line that censors are now defining.

“Most Korean dramas are about urban love stories so there are very few scenes that would violate censorship rules. However, American dramas are different. Violence, sci-fi [a category that is taboo for Chinese TV], and even pornography are very common in US series,” an insider told Hohhot Evening News.

The government’s latest move has prompted a strong response from netizens. In a survey on Sina Weibo, 95.2% of nearly 120,000 people who took part said they did not want the state to decide which TV series they could watch. Others said that banning these popular shows online will only push audiences towards illegal downloading and pirated DVDs.

“[We want] multiculturalism, freedom of choice,” was one widely shared slogan among those who opposed the new regulation.

Another netizen wrote: “Instead of strengthening censorship on American dramas, isn’t it time for regulators to finally put a stop to all the historical dramas on China’s resistance to Imperial Japan that keeps bombarding the airwaves, please?”

But Xinhua reported late last week that much of the brouhaha could be due to a misinterpretation of the new rules. Citing a source within Sohu, the news agency reckons that the regulations are being instigated more to ensure that online video providers verify netizens’ identities before they upload video and audio content. That may suggest that it is user-generated content that worries the authorities rather than the commercially-inspired deals that the likes of Sohu have struck to stream foreign series like House of Cards.

“Although American TV series are strictly scrutinised in China, most of those currently available to the public have already been approved,” the source told Xinhua.

One netizen certainly hopes so: “Ten years ago, if we wanted to watch American dramas we had to rely on pirated DVDs even as we struggled to figure out the story thanks to the shoddy quality. Five years ago, we could go online to illegally download the TV series. But that didn’t last long because sharing platforms like BitTorrent were soon closed down. Three years ago, we could buy good quality pirated Blu-ray discs from Taobao but even that was quickly blocked. The past two years we can finally watch American dramas comfortably on online video sites… but now… once this censorship system is implemented, where can we find American shows?” he laments.

With all this ambiguity, it remains to be seen whether the new rules will have real bite. But the online backlash has revealed just how much the Chinese want to watch American-made dramas. Unwittingly, the censors have demonstrated the continued potency of American ‘soft power’ in China.

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