Wooed by Westeros

Final season of Game of Thrones gets massive audience on Tencent Video


Game of Thrones star Nathalie Emmanuel at the season eight premiere

Game of Thrones has won many accolades, including more Emmys than any other drama (it has received 47) and the title of most-watched show in HBO history (more than 30 million viewers an episode).

Interest in the series has been inintense in China too, although its explicit content, bloody battles and scenes with the supernatural have all drawn the ire of country’s censors. The first four seasons, which were shown on state broadcaster CCTV’s Premium Channel, were so heavily edited that some viewers joked that it was more of a “documentary about medieval castles.” More recently audiences have watched it on Tencent Video, which acquired the exclusive rights from HBO (the American network has been blocked in China since John Oliver poked fun at Xi Jinping last year). Reportedly, anticipation for the latest (and final) series of the fantasy franchise helped the Tencent platform grow its registered subscribers by more than half in the fourth quarter of last year to 89 million (partly fuelled by the release of earlier seasons). The first two episodes of season eight have been streamed 120 million times on Tencent and received a rating of 9.4 out of 10 on top review site Douban.

But of course, the latest series couldn’t air without a flourishing of the censor’s scissors. The first episode, Winterfell, was 48 minutes long, compared to 54 minutes in the originally-aired HBO version. The second, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, was about 4 minutes shorter too. Die-hard fans soon took to weibo to complain. “After eight years, the show finishes with its arms snapped off and its legs broken,” one netizen lamented.

Others said that some of the omissions made it much harder to follow the storyline. “It is a bit uncomfortable watching the censored version,” one complained. “If those scenes are not worth seeing, why would the writer write them? Why would the director shoot them? People who like Game of Thrones don’t like it just for the porn and violence but for the whole thing. I don’t want to miss even one second.”

“It’s not a matter of whether we can watch explicit scenes. Those are part of the plot. It’s like how good and bad experiences are all a part of life. The censored version feels strange,” argued another.

Losing scenes like these mean that many of the show’s fans in China sometimes prefer to download it illegally from file-sharing sites. Chen Shaofeng, deputy dean of the Peking University’s Cultural Industry Research Institute, reckons that in addition to preferring the uncut version, another reason for the downloads is to avoid membership fees on Tencent Video, which holds back the most popular content for paying subscribers (the service only costs about Rmb20 per month).

Still, in a country that is accustomed to palace dramas with vicious warlords and ambitious concubines, is Games of Thrones really so special? Some viewers say they are drawn by the plot twists and character development. Others praise the action sequences and costly production values. But for others watching the show has simply become something of a habit. “For the past eight years, I have witnessed the rise and fall of each family. Their change is also symbolic of my personal growth in the last eight years,” one claimed.

Enjoyment of the show has sparked a range of business opportunities to tap into its Chinese fandom. Ctrip, the country’s leading online travel agency, is now providing holiday packages to six of the major shooting locations for the show, including Croatia, the US, Spain and Iceland. But others in the audience have kept more of a domestic focus, saying that the series has given them a new take on traditional Chinese values. Hence one netizen described the reunion between Jon Snow and Arya Stark in the first episode of the final season as what Li Qingzhao, a poet from the Song Dynasty, described as 物是人非 (wu shi ren fei), meaning that while the surroundings stay the same, the people themselves have changed.

Interest in Game of Thrones has reached the pinnacle of China’s domestic politics too. Li Keqiang, China’s prime minister, mentioned the series during a trip to Croatia recently. “I wish to emphasise that our cooperation is not some sort of a Game of Thrones, but true cooperation for our mutual development and interests,” Li assured.

Xi Jinping has also mentioned the series, according to a report in the South China Morning Post. “We must all make sure the world we live in does not descend into the chaotic, warring, Seven Kingdoms of Westeros,” China’s president is said to have remarked to a group of rather surprised visitors from overseas last month.

Another official, who declined to give his name, told the same newspaper that the senior figures in the Politburo get access to another cut of the show – called the “diamond version” – that is even shorter than the episodes available to the general audience.

Supposedly these condensed versions are necessary because the country’s leaders don’t have the time to watch the whole thing.

Perhaps they are a small positive for fans frustrated at not seeing Game of Thrones in all of its gory glory too: at least they are getting a fuller version of the story than their leaders, it seems.

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