China bans web streaming of popular US TV shows. So who's watching?

The surprise ban on 'The Big Bang Theory' and three other American shows may reflect resistance by state-owned broadcasters to the loss of young audiences to streaming websites. 

Ng Han Guan/AP
An online streaming website shows a description of the American TV show, 'The Big Bang Theory,' on a computer screen in Beijing Sunday, April 27, 2014.

China’s censors are putting the squeeze on an entertainment arena that has thus far been far less regulated than movies and television – online streaming websites. Among the shows in their crosshairs is "The Big Bang Theory," which has proven wildly popular with Chinese viewers. 

The broadcast regulator's order to websites to stop streaming four popular American television shows has left Chinese fans bemused. Major websites pulled the shows today, sparking some concern over what may follow. 

However, the surprise move may be less about curbing offensive content – the usual purview of censors – and more about protecting China's state-owned entertainment industry. Virtually all video streaming sites are privately owned, and many have raised capital in US markets. They have benefited from a lighter regulatory touch than terrestrial channels that are tightly woven into China's propaganda apparatus.   

Along with "The Big Bang Theory," exclusively licensed by Nasdaq-listed for online distribution in China, other Chinese websites were ordered to pull "The Good Wife, "NCIS," and "The Practice."

None of the shows features particularly racy or overtly political content that might offend the Chinese government. That has led to speculation that regulators are worried that these shows' popularity is pulling younger viewers away from Chinese broadcasters’ own, somewhat staid entertainment programming.

"The Big Bang Theory," a sitcom about young scientists living together in Pasadena, Calif., is the most-watched US show playing on China’s websites, with 1.1 billion viewings. That popularity with viewers may have made the sitcom particularly unpopular with government minders.

In a recent commentary for the state-owned Global Times newspaper, TV drama and film critic Tan Fei said the news of censorship of foreign television online was not a surprise. 

“Many domestic TV and film makers complained of unfair competition between domestic drama and foreign drama because there are strict censorship policies on domestic dramas while none to foreign drama,” Tan wrote. “Therefore, the deeper reason for censorship of US dramas is to protect the domestic television and film industry, which is still weak.”

Commercial reasons

Chinese fans who had been following the programs reacted with disappointment and some scorn, keying on the fact that the shows offered far better plots and production than what they can watch on domestic channels. The streaming censorship was one of the hottest topics discussed on China’s Weibo, a popular social-media platform akin to Twitter, on Monday, with many mocking the decision as purely commercial.

This latest development in China’s ongoing battle to control content on the Internet comes after censors announced earlier this month that websites would require government approval for streaming television content from the US and the UK. State-owned broadcasters rarely air foreign films or television shows and those that do must submit materials in advance to get approval.  

Last week, the Xinhua news agency reported that the government had stripped Sina, another US-invested website, of licenses for Internet publication and audio and video dissemination after discovering 24 articles classified as “pornography.”

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