More foreign shows may be taken off China's video sites

BEIJING - Tougher regulations on television series produced in the United States may be coming after four shows, including popular comedy The Big Bang Theory, were removed from major online video sites in line with a government order, analysts warned on Monday.

Chinese video websites should learn how to cope with regulatory changes, although this specific development may have a "very limited impact" on profits, they added.

"The industry is poised to see a longer list of banned TV series because the government's grip on the category is obviously tightening," said Su Jie, who specializes in the online video market for Analysys International.

Over the weekend, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television told the country's major video sites, including Youku and Sohu, to pull the shows. The agency didn't provide a specific explanation.

All the nation's top video sites declined to comment publicly, but frustration and confusion were evident among those who spoke anonymously.

"We have no clue why the government gave the order and we have nothing to do as of now but follow orders from the authorities," said an employee at Inc's online video branch who declined to be identified.

"A long-term decrease in profits isn't likely, although the forced removal of popular shows will definitely lead to viewer losses," said the employee.

Higher revenues from online videos boosted Sohu's first-quarter advertising revenue by 38 per cent year-on-year to US$111 million (S$139.5 million), the company's financial report showed.

"Generally speaking, viewers of US shows have higher education levels and disposable incomes than those who watch domestic and South Korean dramas," according to Su. "US series viewers are the most valuable resource for Youku and Sohu when attracting high-end advertisers."

Xu Hao, an analyst at iResearch Consulting Group, said that cutting popular US shows will mean a loss of viewers and lower advertising earnings. He added that in the future, overseas shows may undergo a harsher review process before being made available online.

For sites that were releasing genuine US shows in China simultaneously with their showings in the US, a review-before-release system means they'll lose page views to platforms distributing pirated copies, said Su from Analysys International.

Huang Xuan, 25, a fan of The Good Wife, one of the shows that's been removed, said she will download the show from an illegal site.

"Policies mandating prior review of online content were issued a long time ago, but they haven't been strictly followed up to now," said Peng Kan, research and development director with consultancy Legend Media.

"Once the shows go through a review by the administration, there's a good chance that they'll be back online again," said Peng, adding that the authority seemingly selected four shows randomly as a "warning shot' to the sites.

Zombie-themed horror drama The Walking Dead is still available on major sites, and a paid channel operated by national broadcaster China Central Television is airing a Chinese-dubbed version of Game of Thrones, HBO's fantasy drama that contains many nude scenes.

CCTV is also preparing to air the dubbed version of The Big Bang Theory, according to CBMMedia, a third-party TV programme production company. China Daily couldn't directly confirm that report.

Another reason why banning US dramas won't hurt video sites much is that the US shows have a rather small number of page views compared with local and South Korean dramas.

Sohu's weekly top 10 list of most-viewed series usually includes seven or eight domestic ones. The rest are from South Korea.

The most recent exception was Season 2 of House of Cards. The political satire climbed to fifth place only three days after its debut on the Chinese platform earlier this year.

In February, there were three series (two domestic, the other from South Korea) that had a monthly online viewer number exceeding 80 million.

The Walking Dead, the most viewed US programme, generated less than 8 million views during the same period, data from iResearch show.

Removing the four shows off the sites was not a "fatal injury" for the companies because most of them have about 70 US shows available online, according to Xu.