Why China loves ‘The Daily Show’

April 11, 2013

On Tuesday, we wrote about a "Daily Show" video mocking North Korea that had racked up an astounding 3 million views on the Chinese Web portal Sina, making it one of the most viewed 'Daily Show' segments ever.

The satirical news show, hosted by Jon Stewart, seems to have taken notice. On Wednesday night, it aired a five-minute segment noting its Chinese audience. Stewart joked, "I've been doing this show in the wrong country."

About 12 hours later, it's looking as though Stewart might actually be right. That new clip has so far attracted about 5,000 views on DailyShow.com. But a version posted to Sina with Chinese subtitles appended has been viewed just shy of a quarter-million times. In other words, a "Daily Show" segment about the show's popularity in China is already 50 times more popular online in China than it is in the United States.

Of course, that doesn't account for Americans who watch "The Daily Show" the old-fashioned way: on their TVs. Recent TV ratings statistics show more than 1 million nightly viewers for the program. So it appears for the time being that the show is still more popular overall in the United States than in China.

Still, don't be surprised if this latest Sina clip edges over the 1 million mark in the next 24 hours. And the fact that that's even a possibility is astounding, given how much of "The Daily Show" focuses on U.S. issues and makes jokes that reference American affairs and popular culture.

What explains the runaway success of "The Daily Show," which would seem ill-suited for Chinese viewers unfamiliar with the overwhelmingly U.S.-focused humor, on the Chinese Web?

Maybe it has to do with China's restrictive media, which tend not to venture into the kind of cutting political satire that has made the show so popular at home. The population of young, urban, middle-class, Web-savvy Chinese is growing rapidly. They're making the Chinese consumer market one of the world's largest, snapping up luxury goods, watching foreign films and enrolling in prestigious American universities. It stands to reason that they'd also be interested in the sort of news coverage that so appeals to young, urban middle classes around the world. But they can't get it from the Chinese media, so they have to go elsewhere.

Jon Stewart, in other words, seems to have stumbled upon one of the most underserved media markets in the world. He's right: He, or someone, should be doing a China-focused "Daily Show." Unfortunately, something as freely critical and openly mocking as "The Daily Show" is unlikely to get past China's censors anytime soon.

The good news is that maybe, just maybe, the apparent popularity of "The Daily Show" in China undercuts the oft-repeated concern that young, middle-class Chinese aren't interested in politics, that they're preoccupied with consumerism and getting ahead. That's a view I've heard far more from frustrated Chinese than from foreigners, so I'm in no position to challenge it, but it is important to note at least this possible sign of greater interest in politics and the world.

(Thanks to Beijing-based journalist Helen Gao for passing along the newest of Sina's translations of "The Daily Show," which she says are frequently posted to the Chinese Web portal by fans in the country.)

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read World
Next Story
Caitlin Dewey · April 11, 2013