Shutting out ‘Sherlock’, ‘House of Cards’? Outcry over reports China's censors are restricting foreign TV series

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2014, 6:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 March, 2014, 7:09pm

Reports over new censorship guidelines on foreign television series have sparked an outcry among internet users, who have come to be accustomed to viewing wildly popular Western productions such as House of Cards or Sherlock online.

In a survey on Sina Weibo, 95.2 per cent of nearly 120,000 surveyed users of the microblogging service said they did not want censors to decide which Western television series they could watch.

Only around 5,700 said they were in support of new guidelines that require regulatory approval before a Western series can appear on a Chinese online video website.

“[We want] multiculturalism, freedom of choice,” was one widely shared slogan among those who opposed the new regulation.

Those who supported censorship said: “They [shows] don’t suit our national sentiment.”

By Wednesday evening, it was still unclear whether new regulations had actually been issued. 

Verne Zhu, an analyst with EntGroup, said the new reports merely reflected an effort to re-emphasise earlier regulations, which required notifying Sarft that a new TV series has been made available to Chinese Internet users. Domestically produced content and user-generated content would however be subject to more scrutiny, she added.

Jean Shao, a spokeswoman for market leader Youku Tudou, told the South China Morning Post, that her company has yet to be notified about new guidelines for foreign TV series.

The department in charge for television series with the regulator could not be reached by phone today.

Over the last years, online video streaming services Youku Tudou and Sohu have gained widespread audiences by acquiring the rights for Western TV series. These services could overtake the traditional box office in China this year or next, said Robert Cain, from the entertainment consultancy Pacific Bridge.

Revenue from online video rose 42 per cent to 12.8 billion yuan (HK$16 billion) last year, according to the Beijing-based consultancy iResearch, which expects revenue to double by 2017.

The success of online streaming partly lies in the stricter regulation of the traditional box office. Unlike with movies, China’s media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (Sarft), has not imposed an annual limit on foreign TV series.

The regulator only allows 34 foreign movies to be imported to China and screened there each year. As of last year, Sohu offered 144 American and British TV series, Tencent has 123 and Youku Tudou 109, according to data provided by the Beijing-based consultancy EntGroup.

Last year, the British detective series Sherlock was released only hours after its season premiere in Britain and ahead of its release in the US.

Other series released online in China include the 1920-drama Downton Abbey, the Danish political drama Borgen and the comedy series Saturday Night Live.

In February, Sohu raised eyebrows by releasing the US political drama House of Cards, which included references to corruption in China, the country’s territorial dispute with Japan and Chinese cyber-espionage – unthinkable content for foreign movies aired on Chinese silver screens.

“Mao is dead, and so is his China,” the protagonist Frank Underwood, played by actor Kevin Spacey, famously told a Chinese businessman in the show.

Unlike with the US provider Netflix, the show was available for free, but ad-sponsored.

The censors have just been overwhelmed by the amount of online video content, said Cain, who also runs the China’s entertainment industry blog ChinaFilmBiz.

“[Providers] just put their content up online. They submit a notice to SARFT that it’s up and then SARFT is supposed to follow through,” he said. “They have not been able to keep up with the flow.”

The reports have raised concerns that the online streaming of these popular television series could eventually be curbed by the new regulations.

“It will clearly have an impact on a financial and creative level,” said Kathryn Arnold, a producer and entertainment expert in Los Angeles. International producers would find their content censored could either resort to making a separate Chinese version of their content or skirt the Chinese market, she said.