Commentary: Expat fills China's TV gap online

Streaming salves barren entertainment landscape

SHANGHAI -- I love living in Shanghai, but there are three things I really miss about the U.S.

I miss driving, though I'm sure I'll change my mind once I get back home and see the gas prices.

I miss Chinese food -- ironically, American-style Chinese food is the only food that's not available in Shanghai.

Most of all, I miss TV.

I miss "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." I miss sitcoms and the various incarnations of "CSI" and "Law & Order." I miss shared cultural experiences such as "Lost" and "Heroes."

Unlike other popular expat destinations, China does not allow U.S. programming to fill its airwaves and cable channels. So that leaves the illegal options -- satellite dishes, pirated DVDs and, most recently, Internet streaming.

Now, downloading a movie illegally feels wrong to me, and I would never install an illegal satellite dish. As for pirated DVDs, well, I will not on the record admit to patronizing Movie World on Dagu Road or to visiting Even Better Than Movie World directly across the street. Let's just say I know where these stores are.

Lately, though, pirated DVDs are a moot point. I haven't been on Dagu Road in months.

Instead, were I so inclined, I can go to or one of several other (though less well-designed) Web sites that point me to pretty much every episode of every TV show that I would want to see. The shows are streamed, not downloaded, so I can enjoy the immediate gratification of watching an episode in seconds, not days, without the guilt and clogged-up hard drives that comes with downloading files.

I'm not the only expat TV watcher in China who has discovered the Internet. The geekily inclined have been downloading video files for years, but they're a relatively small group and have way too much time on their hands.

These days, you no longer need access to secret underground file-sharing networks or special software. Which is nice for those of us who don't have the time -- or the inclination -- to be full-fledged pirates but just want to watch some TV.

Bob Szabolcsky is one of those. The independent footwear consultant lives in Dongguan, a town in central China with a population of 7 million and known mostly for being home to the world's largest shopping mall.

Dongguan has just three English-language channels on its cable television network.

"None of the three have the most current programming, and most programming is of the educational variety," Szabolcsky says. And that's only when the programming isn't pre-empted for local infomercials.

Szabolcsky discovered SurfTheChannel a few weeks ago. "It's a real life-saver in the cultural wasteland that is Dongguan," he says. "In this part of China, folks are desperate for English-language anything."

Gemme van Hasselt, a Shanghai-based Internet marketing specialist, was an early adopter of SurfTheChannel. He's originally from Holland, where television has been streamed on the Internet for at least four or five years, "so I'm used to that," he says.

" is amazing, the number of shows that they have," he says. "And the movies! And it's constantly updated -- they have a whole army of people updating, and it seems to be a competition of people adding new shows."

Van Hasselt recommends that content providers get ahead of sites like SurfTheChannel and the inevitable army of clones likely to follow. Legitimate streaming of television programs and films will allow content owners to embed their own advertising, for example.

"It's the only way forward," he says. "The SurfTheChannels and the BitTorrents are not going to go away."

Back in the U.S. during my summer vacation, I got a chance to try out, and and it was a pleasure to be able to watch legal, ad-supported television again. There was less to watch on the legal sites, but at least I had the moral satisfaction of knowing that my TV watching was paid for by car companies and other advertisers.

Unfortunately, Hulu is inaccessible in China. I'm sure that will change eventually, but for the time being I've still got SurfTheChannel.

Speaking of which, I'm heading off now to catch up on "Desperate Housewives." I heard it was good.