When CBS launched The Big Bang Theory – a show chronicling the lives of four nerdy scientists – it didn’t expect it to be one of its biggest hits. The series is now in its seventh season. Perhaps more surprisingly, it has also been a sensation in China, accumulating almost 1.3 billion views since first appearing on the video site Sohu in 2009, making it the most popular American series to air in the country.
Some of its characters have become household names. When actor Johnny Galecki, who plays Leonard, turned up in Beijing to promote the series he was treated like “royalty”, says the Los Angeles Times.
So it was a major shock to Chinese fans when The Big Bang Theory suddenly disappeared from Sohu’s site last weekend. Viewers were greeted with the message: “Sorry, the episode is not available at the moment due to policy reasons.”
It was then reported that the media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, had demanded that The Big Bang Theory be removed, along with three other American shows: The Good Wife, NCIS and The Practice. The media watchdog has not given any reason for the ruling.
That’s bad news for Sohu, which holds exclusive online rights to The Big Bang Theory. Shares of the Nasdaq-listed tech firm tumbled 6.7% to $54.10 on Monday, the lowest in a year.
“If you look at Sohu’s video platform, they have traditionally been known as one of the more popular sites for that Western content, the US content,” Cheng Cheng, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities, told Bloomberg. The new ruling from SAPPRFT “may be impacting” the stock, Cheng surmised.
Youku Tudou, which shares the rights to the legal drama The Good Wife with Sohu and Tencent, also saw its shares drop about 5.5% early this week.
In the meantime, media commentators are scratching their heads as to why the regulator has singled out The Big Bang Theory for action. After all, Beijing Daily describes the series as “motivating and wholesome” compared to other more violent or risqué shows like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and Masters of Sex, which have all been left untouched.
One view is that there’s more to the move than dislike for American sit-coms: “The Big Bang Theory doesn’t have explicit images. However it portrays a kind of lifestyle that is totally Western. A leader like Xi [Jinping] must sense the mismatch between the culture he is promoting and the culture that these videos are spreading,” an employee at an online video provider speculated to the Wall Street Journal.
As WiC reported in issue 232, regulators have been planning to increase oversight of foreign content on the internet since early April. It is a deeply unpopular step. Over 95% of the 130,000 respondents polled in a Sina survey early last month voted against banning American television series. The mood was so rebellious that Xinhua published an article denying that the regulations would be applied universally to foreign programming. But the reaction to Sunday’s censorship was equally intense, with at least 300,000 comments on weibo. “Give me back Sheldon! How can you block such an innocent show? The main character doesn’t even kiss his girlfriend until the seventh season,” one netizen lamented, referring to one of his favourite characters.
Elsewhere there were attempts to justify the ban, albeit with some contorted logic. “If you don’t have internet order, how can you have internet freedom?” the People’s Daily asked. “Anyone enjoying and exercising their internet rights and freedoms must not harm the public interest and cannot violate laws and regulations and public ethics.”
The Global Times also chimed in, saying that the goal is to safeguard “teenagers’ physical and mental health” and “on a deeper level is aimed at protecting our weak domestic film industry”.
Another of the hypotheses was that broadcasting giant CCTV has secured the series rights to The Big Bang Theory (and for Game of Thrones too) and wants to clear the way for higher ratings as it broadcasts the two shows.
Or as Shenzhen Economic Daily put it: “US dramas are not completely banned. They are now being ‘harmonised’ in order to be played on CCTV.”
“So this is why American shows are banned online. To pave the way for CCTV? In the eyes of SAPPRFT, CCTV is the real child,” one netizen mused.
“Effectively, the quotas or outright bans on foreign content [on traditional TV] created this space for the internet guys to fill. Now, it’s got to the point where The Big Bang Theory cast members are coming to China and being treated like royalty and the incumbents — CCTV and the traditional broadcasters — are clearly feeling the heat,” claims Duncan Clark, chairman of BDA China, an investment consultancy based in Beijing. “This internet streaming is eating away massively at market share.”
Netizens embraced the irony of the ban too: “The Good Wife and The Big Bang Theory are both forced to come off while Game of Thrones, which contains such heavy stuff sometimes that even I’m too shy to watch it, is now going to be on CCTV. This is a load of crap,” one complained.
Last week censors also revoked two licences allowing online publication and distribution at Sina, a popular internet portal. It was accused of releasing 20 articles and four videos containing lewd content (one of the offending items: a book racily titled The Village Woman’s Dream Lover: Village Doctor Wanted). After the licences were pulled Sina went into prostration mode. “As one of the influential websites in China, Sina has failed to shoulder its due responsibility and we feel deeply sorry for that,” it said in a statement to Xinhua. The internet firm also saw its shares drop to a one-year low on Nasdaq.
If the crackdown on American shows like The Big Bang Theory continues, it’s also bad news for Ji Erwei, managing director of Reach Glory Media Group. Ji has launched an online talk show on Youku to explain the thematic and cultural trends in US programmes to Chinese audiences (he worked in the American entertainment industry previously). The show’s initial episodes have garnered over 1.3 million views. But if many more of the sitcoms and dramas that he features are pulled off the web, Ji is going to have lot less to talk about.
But Ji might take heart from an interview with Youku’s boss, Victor Koo. He told the Wall Street Journal there may be “isolated incidents” where overseas TV shows are removed by regulators, but he doesn’t reckon it will prove a “widespread phenomenon”.
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