Harsher Censorship or Cunning Plot? Confusion Reigns Over Chinese Online TV Bans

Bring Back Sheldon

After four top shows are banned from online TV, companies insist there is no overall ban on foreign content.

Intrigue piles upon intrigue in the Chinese online TV world right now, as top U.S. shows are banned from online streaming sites but are being lined up to re-appear on the state broadcaster CCTV.

So fiendish are the twists and turns of the story so far that it would not be out of place among the fleshpots and ultraviolent warriors of the HBO series Game of Thrones, which, incredibly, aired on China’s national broadcaster CCTV on Sunday.

Webizens are wailing and gnashing their teeth over a government decision to pull The Big Bang Theory, NCIS, The Good Wife and The Practice from online streaming sites. They are calling it the latest attack on free speech, and poignantly asking for the return of Sheldon, one of Big Bang Theory’s most beloved stars in China.

However, this may really be all about business and re-imposing state control.

As Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister would put it: “You win or you die."

“They are showing Game of Thrones and yet Big Bang Theory isn’t safe. Something is wrong with that,” a senior source at an online TV company, who requested anonymity, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Until now, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television has allowed video websites to operate with few of the restrictions imposed on movies or TV, as it tries to encourage a high-tech industry where China has opportunities to lead the field.

Online companies such as Youku, Tencent and Sohu have operated with far more freedom to show edgy material, such as The Walking Dead and House of Cards, than the traditional media, such as TV and cinema. It’s long been baffling how the government allows shows like House of Cards, particularly the second season, which had a storyline critical of Chinese government corruption.

As reported in The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month, SAPPRFT said it was planning to increase censorship of foreign content .

“The regulators have been working on proper regulations since 2009. I firmly believe that the government will leave enough room for us and the online TV content providers. We provide lots of revenues for them,” said the source.

The head of Sohu.com, Charles Zhang, insisted the decision did not mean a change in policy.

"I believe it's a stand-alone event and it does not represent the policy trend or change toward American TV shows," said Zhang, Soho CEO and founder, on an earnings call. The Nasdaq-listed Sohu has rights to show two of the shows.

Initially, it looked like the decision to ban the shows and increase monitoring of foreign shows online was part of an effort to impose ideological rigor on the relatively freewheeling online sites and bring them back into the remit of the Communist Party’s embrace.

That may yet be the case, but there is also a growing suspicion that the government is intervening to give the flagging fortunes of the state broadcaster a boost.

CCTV is seriously hurting from the competition from companies like Sohu and Youku.

According to trailers on CCTV, the broadcaster is also planning to show the seventh season of The Big Bang Theory, dubbed into Chinese with “excessive content” dubbed out. A Beijing-based translation service, CBM, tweeted that it was doing subtitles.

Once safely ensconced on CCTV, the shows will be easier to censor and control, while also boosting the ad revenues that have been falling as online takes a bigger bite. Webizens are worried too that the edited versions of these shows on CCTV could lose much of their bite, becoming "green" versions, as people describe sanitized products here.

At the same time, Sohu, Youku and others have exclusive rights to these programs, so a showdown could be in the offing, presenting the kind of legal problem even The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick would wrestle with. Presumably The Good Wife is next in line for a CCTV slot.

The online reaction was as angry as Tyrion Lannister at a bachelor party for Joffrey Baratheon.

Many said there was no way the bans would make them go back to watching anti-Japanese wartime soap operas and endless costume dramas on state TV.

“You can’t stop me from thinking and from understanding the world outside. You can’t stop me from pursuing my dream and confining my thoughts,” wrote one netizen from Henan on 163.com, in response to a news story.

Another commentator named Wu Mao wrote: “Even though you banned the American dramas, normal people will not go watch anti-Japanese dramas.”

There was even political satire in the remarks.

Shanghai 112 said: “If today they can decide what we can’t watch, then tomorrow they can decide what we can watch only. The so-called internet clean-up, they just want to put a legal cover for suppressing the freedom of speech.”

One commentator said the government should think more about improving social welfare and less about banning Big Bang Theory.

“You don’t care about single old people or people who don’t have money to treat their sickness. Why do you care what films or TV dramas we watch? Who are you?"