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China’s opens gates to streaming U.S. content online

Current-season episodes of Saturday Night Live, America’s premiere not-ready-for-primetime comedy show, are now available online in China. Ten SNL episodes have been playing online at Sohu Video’s website since late December, ...
January 10, 2014

Current-season episodes of Saturday Night Live, America’s premiere not-ready-for-primetime comedy show, are now available online in China.

Ten SNL episodes have been playing online at Sohu Video’s website since late December, though the SNL/Sohu deal was only announced formally at a press conference in Beijing, on January 2.

Sohu Video is part of Sohu.com Inc., an online media group that’s publicly traded in the U.S. on the NASDAQ exchange.

“Future episodes will be available online without subtitles the Monday after airing in the United States,” according to a Sohu statement, referenced by The Associated Press, “and a version with Chinese subtitles and explanations of cultural references will be available at 10 p.m. the following Saturday.”

The obvious question is: Is China, well known for its sometimes ham-fisted censorship of American movies and TV, ready for SNL‘s brand of barbed satire? Two developments suggest that this deal could be part of a media thaw behind the Great Wall:

One, Chinese government officials recently singled out Baidu Inc., China’s largest search engine, as a significant violator of video copyright regulations, signaling a possible crackdown on copyright infringement (a priority for American media doing business in China).

And two, in the first half of 2013 Youku Tudou, a major Chinese online video company, acquired rights to 33 U.S. television series, including such edgy fare as Modern Family and Pretty Little Liars, signaling a possible willingness to expose Chinese viewers to racier fare than has previously passed muster.

“Things that are controversial in America are probably not controversial in China,” Sohu Chairman and CEO Charles Zhang said in new year’s press conference announcing the SNL deal, according to The AP. “And this talk show is in the spirit of fun and humor. I don’t think there will be any problem.”

And then, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Zhang added this “self-aware” joke: SNL “is not going to be controversial here — unless… they make a joke about China.”

Zhang’s remark simply highlights the issue of potential censorship. And Stream raised that issue in a message for the senior communications official at Broadway Video, the company headed by Lorne Michaels, who created and still exec produces SNL:

Did Broadway Video receive any assurances from Sohu that the SNL episodes would not be censored, or conversely, did Broadway perhaps assure Sohu that future SNL episodes wouldn’t skewer the People’s Republic?

At press time there had been no reply from the communications official.

Perhaps the most egregious recent example of big-screen Chinese censorship was World War Z, the big-budget zombie movie starring Brad Pitt. The location of the original zombie outbreak depicted in the movie was shifted from somewhere in China to somewhere in North Korea — to placate Chinese officials, according to multiple reports at the time. Other high-profile American projects that have been trimmed by the censors for Chinese audiences include both Cloud Atlas, the sci-fi epic starring Tom Hanks, which had nearly 40 minutes cut from its American running time, reportedly because of sexual scenes and references, and Skyfall, the latest James Bond movie, reportedly cut because of dialogue considered anti-Chinese by the censors.

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