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Chinese regulators to limit foreign TV shows on video-streaming sites

The Big Bang Theory (Photo: Michael Yarish/Warner Bros)

Five months after Chinese regulators suddenly took down popular American TV series “The Big Bang Theory” along with three other shows from Chinese video sites, a new limit on foreign television shows is reportedly in the works.

China is reportedly going to impose a new limit on the number of foreign television shows that online video-streaming services can offer, according to the Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter. The new policy aims to make sure foreign TV shows comprise no more than 30 percent of the content on Chinese video-streaming sites such as Youku and Sohu.

Whether the 30 percent cap referred to the number of titles of TV shows or the number of show’s episodes is yet unclear. Neither Youku nor Sohu responded to requests for comment.

“The regulator has been collecting data about episodes of different online programs from major video sites for quite a while,” the Journal quoted one executive of a domestic video site as saying. “The agency has done quite a lot of homework for this policy.”

The new restriction could have some impact on the business models of sites such as Youku, Sohu and Tencent, since these sites usually pay for the rights of the TV shows, stream them at no cost to viewers and profit from advertisements.

Foreign TV shows take up more than half of the video content on Chinese video sites, according to a report by Chinese state media. “Sherlock” from the U.K. and “House of Cards” from the U.S. have topped China’s must-watch lists. Sohu, a major video-streaming site in China, has drawn more than 120 million views a month streaming “The Big Bang Theory.”

Questions about intensified government control over online video contents have been raised since Chinese audience who went online to watch “The Big Bang Theory,” “The Good Wife,” “NCIS” and “The Practice” in April but only found an announcement saying that “the episode cannot be watched due to government policy.”

Most complaints on social media came from the Chinese audience of “The Big Bang Theory,” a sitcom whose main characters are nerdy science guys.

There is a demographic reason why fictitious nerds from CalTech have charmed millions of Chinese viewers, Liz Carter wrote in Foreign Policy. One of China’s popular words in 2013 was “diaosi,” a term used to describe poor and girlfriend-less geeks. While it may seem odd that young Chinese are willingly to label themselves as “diaosi” — sometimes translated as losers — it actually reflects a phenomenon of Chinese youth blaming the lack of material, romantic and professional success on the country’s gender imbalance, high cost of urban living and low social mobility.

After the show was removed from online video sites, many have questioned if the Chinese regulators removed the show to gain profits by directing viewers to the state-run channels from online sites. Only days after “The Big Bang Theory” was taken down, the state-run broadcast channel CCTV began to air “Game of Thrones” and confirmed that the channel is in the process of translating and editing a “Green edition” of the “The Big Bang Theory” that will not contain any inappropriate scenes.

“Regulators should at least clarify why they are banning ‘The Big Bang Theory’ while keeping shows that actually could have negative influence on children,” one Weibo user wrote. “If government regulators never explain their decisions, they will begin to lose their credibility among the public.”