'Saturday Night Live' Launches on Chinese Video Site Sohu

Sohu CEO Charles Zhang P
Clifford Coonan

The company's chief executive, Charles Zhang, believes recent court victories against copyright violators is kick-starting a major import boom of Hollywood TV shows and movies.

Chinese audiences are now able to laugh along to the comedic charms of U.S. TV luminaries like Kristen Wiig, Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, as classic sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live has made its China debut on the online video site Sohu.com.

Sohu.com chief executive Charles Zhang believes the import of Saturday Night Live and shows like the soon-to-come Mob City, as well as a series of recent court victories, will spearhead industry efforts to combat piracy and woo Chinese audiences to watch legitimate U.S. content in the world's biggest online market.

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"American TV shows account for one-fifth of total clicks we're getting, and I'm really confident that we will be able to attract the attention of younger viewers," Zhang said at an event at the company's headquarters in Beijing's Haidian district. The event was also attended by Chinese stand-up comedian Joe Wong and Kelly Cha, a Beijing-based TV presenter, musician, writer and actor.

SNL quietly premiered on Sohu.com on Dec. 23, but the company officially announced the debut at the Beijing event today. 

Over the course of 2013, China's online video market began to emerge as a viable distribution channel for Hollywood content producers, with a raft of top U.S. TV series, such as The Walking Dead and Modern Family, selling to Sohu.com, Youku Tudou and other streaming services.

The sums involved in licensing content are small, and to make VOD a meaningful business, China has to deal with the widespread problem of digital piracy. Zhang believes that is happening now, and fast.

Earlier this week, China's largest search engine, Baidu Inc., and Shenzhen-based technology firm QVOD were labeled China's top two violators of copyrighted video content in 2013 by the National Copyright Administration of China (NCAC).

Both companies were subsequently fined $41,225 (250,000 yuan), the highest penalty a copyright violator can be required to pay under current statutes.

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"The more content we buy, the less piracy we get," Zhang said. "We buy the content and we file lawsuits against the pirate sites. Basically, for domestic TV drama and American TV series, the majority of the Chinese audience is now watching legitimate content. I'm very happy to see a campaign that started in 2009 result in such a great victory. This is an industry with law and order."

"The import of American TV series, followed by the import of comedy shows like Saturday Night Live, will be followed by the import of American movies, and that will be huge," he said. "To the American content industry, this is the best news, and it happened so quickly. It was such a headache for the big five [studios]. There were pirates everywhere. This will enable the American entertainment companies, the creativity, to shine in this part of the world." 

When aired on Sohu.com,  Saturday Night Live will have subtitles explaining particular references that a Chinese audience might not immediately understand. It will be broadcast on Mondays in English following the live U.S. broadcast, without any subtitles, and the following Saturday the show will be shown with Chinese subtitles, so the local audience feels they are watching a Saturday night show on Saturday night.

"The younger generation is growing up in a connected world with greater English proficiency, and culturally they are fans of celebrities overseas -- it's worldwide. Just from the traffic, we know they are enjoying American TV episodes," Zhang said.

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"Because of fair competition of American TV industry, generally the quality is so much higher, so much better, it's eye-opening for Chinese people to watch these creations. It's fashionable to be a fan of American culture -- they feel dignified, a person with class," he added.

He said that if Saturday Night Live becomes popular in China, it will inspire Chinese producers to do make similar shows in terms of format, although with more localized content.

"People here are trying to learn from everywhere. Voice of China is an import from abroad, or even TV imports like House of Cards, which we introduced here, a lot of producers are looking at these top American shows and are determined to produce a Chinese version," he said.

Zhang did not expect too much difficulty with censorship, saying that the most content changes related to nudity rather than political content. 

"Things that are controversial in America are probably not controversial in China," said Zhang. "We have already introduced many TV shows with different topics and they didn't get us into trouble. I don't see any problem."

In a self-aware joke that drew laughs from the mixed crowd, Zhang added: "[SNL] is not going to be controversial here -- unless ... they make a joke about China." 

Cha said the resurgence of quality American TV was being noticed in China and that there is a ready-made audience for U.S. TV here.

"American TV is just so good these days. Everybody's watching, the quality is better, the shows are smarter," Cha said.

. … Had we not looked in every aspect of that car … someone else might have found it later on … and would have thrown it away," he says.