Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Invisible Culture War: Media Importation in China

Basically every BBC Sherlock fan knows that Season 2 is back. Fortunately, the Chinese audience were the first outside the U.K. to see the drama on Youku (the Chinese version of Youtube) only a few hours after its Wednesday night premiere.

Sherlock, a modern interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s influential detective short stories, fascinates millions of Chinese fans with its unique narrative complexity, incredibly charming yet obnoxious characters, and elaborate camerawork and animation.


Benedict Cumberbatch as the fluffy-haired detective and Martin Freeman as the “What! How?” straight man

Having recognized the tremendous market potential for Sherlock Holmes, Youku Tudou purchased the license for more than a billion yuan (about US$165 million) in order to combat rampant internet piracy with their own high-quality and timely foreign media online broadcasts.

“The BBC will directly provide us with official Chinese language subtitles… which is a first for a British drama released over Youku Tudou,” Zhu Xiangyang, Youku Tudou’s Chief Content Executive, explained. “After a review process where the site’s internal team confirms there are no problems with the video or the subtitles, the episode can immediately be released, and the whole process takes about four hours only.”

Of course, there’s more to the story. From 2010 to 2013, the total amount of American dramas shown on Youku surged, maintaining the increasing rate of viewership at an exponential level. As the largest and most comprehensive Chinese online database of Western media, Youku Tudou monopolized licenses of 25 English-language dramas – viewership during the premiere of 2 Broke Girls’ Season 3 reached 4 million, while the number of people who tuned in for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was 5 million.

For Chinese online video platforms, foreign dramas equal cash cows. After the State Administration of Radio Film and Television’s effective practice of wiping out online piracy, video websites seized the unprecedented opportunity of huge residual demand and built consumer loyalty by synchronizing more popular American and British dramas.


Gossip Girls in China

Though the price of each episode has risen (from roughly $20,000 to $120,000 yuan) due to fierce competition between different websites, it’s still a drop compared to advertising revenue. Apart from the huge audience, English-language TV dramas also effectively “catch” the eyeballs of the particular consumer segment most desired by advertisers: a typical viewer is a white-collar or an undergraduate student, who is generally well-educated and occupies a relatively higher position on the social ladder. The cultural scheme of targeting the right consumer group proved successful – in 2010, the estimated total revenue generated by the media importation was 1 billion, with future prospects was even more promising.

Nevertheless, though the online market is welcoming, Chinese government has “globalphobic” policies regarding other mediums. Due to the strict content restrictions on television, currently no Chinese TV channels broadcast American television dramas or shows.

On one hand, the general public might not respond well to the unfamiliar lives of people living on another continent – after all, China itself is a gigantic country with a lot happening domestically. On the other hand, an attempt to import Desperate Housewives on CCTV-8 proved a hilarious failure due to weird Chinese dubbing and the scrubbing of all sexual or violent scenes – the plot didn’t make any sense after editing. As well, other Asian countries, such as Korea, have their respective cultural protectionist policies in place to avoid western cultural domination.

The gauntlet’s thrown and trodden upon: the invisible culture war’s already begun.

Main image via NPR

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