China's nanny state outdid itself on April 25 when authorities suddenly pulled "The Big Bang Theory" and three other popular U.S. television programs off Chinese streaming video sites. Keeping with their usual practice, regulators didn’t explain why they'd clamped down on the wildly popular programs (why should they?). Instead, the sites were left scrambling to respond to angry viewers, claiming that the shows had been pulled for familiar causes such as “violations of relevant rules” and "policy reasons."
That hasn't turned out to be much solace to "Big Bang" fans, who have stormed mainland microblogs for the last three days raging over what, precisely, is so offensive about a sitcom centered around a virginal physicist and his astrophysics-loving friends. In all likelihood, the banned shows contain nothing particularly offensive to the Communist Party. In fact, on Sunday night, state-owned China Central Television aired an episode of HBO's fantasy television series "Game of Thrones," which typically contains more sex and violence -- Chinese censors’ favorite targets -- in a random 10-minute sample than an entire season of "Big Bang Theory."
The "Big Bang" ban most likely has less to do with content and more with competition. By licensing popular U.S. shows, China’s privately owned video streaming sites are stealing eyeballs and advertising dollars away from state-owned networks such as CCTV. “The most likely explanation is that ideology is just an excuse,” tweeted Zhou Xuanyi, a philosophy professor in Wuhan, on Sina Weibo. “The real reason is that the censors want some benefit if you’re going to be earning money on their turf." Indeed, the Beijing News reported Monday that CCTV was already preparing a dubbed “green edition” of "Big Bang Theory" -- minus “excessive content” -- for broadcast on its own channels.
Further proof came on Tuesday afternoon, when authorities also banned “Diors Man,” a signature comedy show self-produced by Sohu.com. Unlike the staid melodramas that populate much of state-owned Chinese television, "Diors Man" is loose, occasionally edgy, and very much in the tradition of U.S. late-night television (a fact the show’s creators openly tout). Most important, it appeals to a young, urban demographic that's grown up with the Chinese Internet and social media.
Predictably, news of the show’s ban also quickly trended on Sina Weibo. “A second Cultural Revolution,” cried one angry user of the service, echoing sentiments that had been building through the weekend. Subtler and perhaps more sensible opinions emerged as well. “The reason for the poor quality of domestic television series is that there’s too many restrictions,” wrote Wu Yue Sanren, a popular commentator on Weibo. “Government should be a referee and supervisor but not a prison guard.”
That's not a sentiment likely to engender much support at the upper levels of the Chinese Communist Party, of course. On Monday, the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the party, ran an unsigned editorial on the need for even tighter Internet control. In the best Orwellian tradition, the paper asked, “If you don’t have Internet order, how can you have Internet freedom?” In effect, authorities are telling China’s comedy-loving Internet users that they need to lower their expectations for how they can use and enjoy the Web and what it offers them. The state’s prerogatives -- whether they be motivated by profit or ideology -- take firm precedence.
This is a considerable shift in policy for a youthful generation of Internet users accustomed to being left alone to entertain themselves, so long as they don't challenge the party’s rule. How will they react to watching their favorite shows disappear from their phones, tablets and laptops? Will they return, as the state-owned broadcasters hope, to watching television like their parents did? For a Communist Party that seems increasingly out of step with its youngest subjects, the answer to those questions is a matter of much more than ratings.
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