Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

China's Streaming Fans Face a Long Wait

Binge-watching, that proud pastime of American TV addicts, may soon be the only legal way for viewers in China to catch up on their favorite foreign shows. The Chinese government has quietly instituted a censorship policy that bars video sites from streaming new episodes of programs—including Mad Men and The Simpsons—in the country until after the shows’ seasons have ended, say two people familiar with the matter who weren’t authorized to discuss it publicly.

Video sites such as Sohu.com and Baidu’s IQiyi, previously left to police themselves, can submit episodes to censors for approval only once the full seasons have aired, say the people. Seasons beginning in September and ending in May in the U.S. won’t be legally available to Chinese Internet users until June at the earliest. The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film & Television—the government agency in charge of carrying out the policy—didn’t respond to requests for comment, and spokesmen for Sohu and IQiyi declined to comment.

Before anything is cleared for viewing, the government office must certify that the show contains nothing violent, sexual, or offensive to the ruling Communist Party, according to the people familiar with the matter. It’s unclear how much of each episode will survive, because the agency is empowered to edit the programs. Sohu sites, for example, may no longer be able to continue showing the uncut second season of House of Cards, which includes a running subplot involving corrupt Chinese businessmen and a trade war between the U.S. and China.

Kevin Spacey tangles with Chinese corruption in House of Cards.

Kevin Spacey tangles with Chinese corruption in House of Cards.

Source: Netflix

The policy change is a bid by President Xi Jinping to more strictly control the programming available to the 630 million people online in the world’s most populous nation. “It’s swinging back to the more traditional model where the media becomes the mouthpiece to promote the party agenda,” says Doug Young, the Shanghai-based author of The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China.

Although China has long censored broadcast TV and blocked foreign websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, video sites have only recently faced similar restrictions. In April four U.S. shows, including The Big Bang Theory and The Good Wife, were removed without warning from Chinese video sites. In September the country’s broadcast regulator announced its intent to begin reviewing all foreign TV. The following month, Xi urged a gathering of authors, actors, and other artists to create more works that promote socialism and morality. And in December viewers expressed outrage on social media sites after episodes of a popular Tang dynasty drama were briefly taken down, then returned with shots recropped to move actresses’ cleavage below the TV frame. “It’s getting more controlled, especially the American culture type of videos,” Mark Tanner, founder of researcher China Skinny, says of the country’s online entertainment.

Season-length streaming delays are also frustrating, says Wang Weiyang, a university student from Beijing. “Simultaneous streaming is very important to me,” Wang says, adding that she can’t imagine waiting until seasons of Homeland and The Vampire Diaries end to catch up on the storylines.

Episodes already streaming can remain on China’s streaming sites while they await approval, but the regulator said in September that each site must register those episodes with authorities. Some TV shows that might not meet Xi’s moral standards, including American Horror Story and The Strain, an apocalyptic vampire series, were still available uncensored on legal Chinese video websites as of Jan. 19.

The restrictions are a setback for foreign media companies such as 21st Century Fox and CBS, which have struck licensing deals with Sohu, IQiyi, and Youku Tudou in China for undisclosed sums. Fox and CBS declined to comment. All their shows can be found uncensored through sites such as dytt8.net that compile links to pirated versions of the shows. “Chinese viewers have formed the habit of watching foreign shows online,” says Luke Xu, an analyst at market researcher IResearch in Shanghai. “Some viewers might not be able to accept the lag in airtime and will have to resort to piracy.”

The bottom line: New restrictions mean a U.S. show premiering in September 2015 is unlikely to be available in China before June 2016.

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