'Big Bang' Isn't Porn, So Why Is China Censoring Hollywood?

Source: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

A scene from the television show "The Good Wife," 2014. Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart (left) and Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick. Close

A scene from the television show "The Good Wife," 2014. Christine Baranski as Diane... Read More

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Source: CBS Broadcasting, Inc.

A scene from the television show "The Good Wife," 2014. Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart (left) and Julianna Margulies as Alicia Florrick.

Trying to glean what's behind the actions of China's Internet censors can be a bit like reading tarot cards. When it comes to porn, pictures of Tiananmen Square, or any mention of "free" and "Tibet" in the same sentence, it's obvious why that content gets stomped out. But there are plenty of cases when it makes no sense.

For example, China banned four mainstream American television shows last month that could hardly be considered offensive. (An example punchline from "The Big Bang Theory," one of the shows on China's naughty list: "I'm not insane. My mother had me tested!") That move stirred fears in Hollywood and on Wall Street that a wholesale crackdown on American entertainment would be next. The news sent shares of Sohu.com, the Netflix of China, plunging to a one-year low.

Hollywood wouldn't be the first foreign industry to get bounced out of China. Silicon Valley's largest websites are blocked by the government, and citing fears about how they might affect youth, video-game consoles had been illegal in the country for 14 years until the ban was lifted in January. Bloomberg.com has been blocked in China for nearly two years.

Charles Zhang, Sohu's chief executive officer, quickly addressed the issue on the company's earnings call, describing it as a "standalone event." He echoed that view last week in an interview on Bloomberg TV. He declined to say why the shows were taken down, although he said rumors that state broadcaster China Central Television pressured the government to take it offline to minimize competition for its airings of "Big Bang" were false.

Photographer: Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images

Mayim Bialik, Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting in "The Big Bang Theory." Close

Mayim Bialik, Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting in "The Big Bang Theory."

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Photographer: Sonja Flemming/CBS via Getty Images

Mayim Bialik, Jim Parsons, Johnny Galecki and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting in "The Big Bang Theory."

Executives within China's Internet industry agree with Zhang that this isn't the start of something bigger. "Now and then, you will see that from China," Jenny Lee, a Shanghai-based partner at technology investment firm GGV Capital, said in an interview last week.

“Occasionally, they want to flex their muscles," Lee said. "But in general, the attitude is open because if it's a true shutdown, it would be shut. It wouldn't just be one or two episodes."

Blowback from a state-wide ban would be fierce. China has fallen in love with Hollywood. The country has quickly become the second-biggest movie market and is expected to overtake the U.S. by the end of the decade. Youku Tudou, a Beijing-based video website similar to YouTube, has cozied up to the U.S. studios. Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson appeared at a shopping mall in Beijing last month as part of a Walt Disney-Youku promotion for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier."

In addition to "Captain America" clips, Youku's site carried "The Good Wife" until last month's incident. Youku CEO Victor Koo described the ban as "an isolated incident."

"We've been working with the studios for a long time," Koo said in an interview last week. “We’re promoting '24' as we speak. We actually have all the rights for the previous seasons."

Three of the shows — "Big Bang," "The Good Wife" and "NCIS" — were from CBS, which suggests that the network may have been the target. A CBS spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment. The fourth was "The Practice," a decade-old ABC courtroom drama that's probably not in every user's watch queue anyway. The government told Sohu it's reviewing the ban and expects to allow the shows back on the Web, Zhang said on "Bloomberg West."

"Now, I think after this incident, they are more careful, and they are more sophisticated," Zhang said. "We are enjoying a real spring of American TV dramas in China."

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