Why are Chinese regulators picking on "The Big Bang Theory," which was just booted off Chinese online streaming platforms along with three other U.S. TV shows?
The move left perplexed fans asking how a sitcom about quirky scientists is more objectionable than other shows still allowed online, like the politically sensitive "House of Cards" or retro-kinky "Masters of Sex" (which shows in China with some anatomical features pixelated.)
China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television hasn't explained why it targeted "The Big Bang Theory," "The Good Wife," "NCIS" and "The Practice." So it's possible that -- for some obscure reason – regulators found something subversive or threatening about those four shows.
But here's another theory that makes more sense: it's just business.
China's powerful state broadcaster CCTV covets the young, educated audiences that watch U.S. shows on online video sites, as well as the small but fast-growing sums of ad money they bring in. And CCTV -- a bastion of traditional, state-approved fare -- might be hoping to edge out the private Internet companies and broadcast more foreign fare itself.
"In addition to the ideological 'benefits,' (new regulation) may also be a moneymaking opportunity for CCTV if it forces all foreign show buying through them and helps stem ratings decline," China commentator Bill Bishop wrote in his influential newsletter, Sinocism.
Another clue that CCTV already has designs on "The Big Bang Theory" came a few weeks ago when a company called CBM announced online that it had been hired by CCTV to translate the show for Chinese audiences.
A CBM staff member confirmed the project was ongoing but said he didn't have more information about how or when CCTV might broadcast the sitcom. The employee, who declined to give his name, added that the company was "cleaning up" the dialogue for the state broadcaster by removing sexual innuendoes from the Chinese subtitles. ("When things are not proper for TV, we translate them differently," he said.)
CCTV did not respond to requests for comment. It recently started showing another hot foreign title, "Game of Thrones," on its premium channel, and it also has its own online video site, though it's not as popular as players Youku Tudou, Sohu, iQiyi and Tencent.
Online video is growing fast in China, generating $2.07 billion in revenues in 2013, up 41.9 % from 2012, according to iResearch. The bulk of that is through advertising.
U.S. shows represent a fraction of shows available online, though they're a targeted way for marketers to reach sought-after consumers, many of whom view the shows on their mobile phones. Watch "The Walking Dead" on platform Youku this week and you might see pre-roll ads for Honda, Vidal Sassoon and Kindle.
Until now, China regulators have been hands-off about content on streaming portals, creating an odd mismatch: Online video sites have been largely free to air what they want, unlike movie theaters (only 34 foreign films can be screened here each year) and TV channels (China has even limited the number of popular singing competitions and required them to be less showy.)
The regulator has been working on guidelines for the online video sector for years, though it's still unclear what form they'll take when they're eventually announced, one industry insider said.
This month has brought a campaign by Chinese authorities on "cleaning the Internet": shutting down pornography sites, and punishing internet giant Sina for permitting obscene fare online by taking away several of its licenses for publishing content.
The crackdown on the TV shows, apparently part of the "cleanup," generated a strong reaction online. On Weibo, China's Twitter TV, fans reacted to the news with emoticons that screamed, cried or vomited.
It's uncertain how big the impact will be.
Charles Zhang, chairman and CEO of Sohu, which aired several of the shows including "The Big Bang Theory," said in a conference call that he believed the take-down of the four shows was a "standalone event" that didn't reflect a policy change toward U.S. shows.
"So we'll continue to develop our American TV shows business," he said, noting that viewers of those shows are "high-end and really with very good purchasing power, so it's the ideal audience for advertisers."
The sector is still attracting investors, too, despite the blow: Another video platform, Youku Tudou, just announced a US$1.22 billion investment led by e-commerce giant Alibaba Group.