China is seduced by `Housewives'

Decision to air edgy show, with editing, shows loosening of controls

September 29, 2005|By GADY A. EPSTEIN | GADY A. EPSTEIN,SUN FOREIGN REPORTER

BEIJING -- The government that carefully monitors what people say in Internet chat rooms, controls what they can read in their newspapers and dictates what they can see on television has found something suitable for the masses: Desperate Housewives.

Chinese state television has decided to broadcast American-style intrigue, deception and adultery by bringing the ABC program - retitled Crazy Housewives in Chinese - to its audience of hundreds of millions.

The Communist television czars of China Central Television, who control what viewers in the world's largest market get to see, have deemed the women of Wisteria Lane suitable for home viewing, after editing to make the content officially appropriate.

Too stuffy in years past to broadcast the sexual innuendo of Friends over the open air, CCTV producers might delete racy scenes that American audiences would consider essential parts of the program. But the fact that the show is coming to China is evidence of looser controls.

"The policy for importing TV programs is changing in China," said Yin Hong, professor of communications at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "Society is gradually accepting more open content."

Costly fees

Though China has long imported documentary-type programming from the United States, only a relative handful of American network entertainment shows make it here, in part because of costly licensing fees for broadcasting to CCTV's gigantic audience.

Baywatch, which at its peak in the 1990s seemed to engineer a takeover of the planet's television stations, was shown in China. The counterterrorism drama 24 debuted last year to what experts considered unexceptional ratings, and ER, Mad About You and Everybody Loves Raymond have aired here without winning large audiences. The HBO war miniseries Band of Brothers also aired in China.

But the most popular shows here are domestically produced series and soap operas, some with themes similar to those of U.S. shows, including Divorce Chinese Style, about an urban couple's marital strife, and two Chinese renditions of Sex in the City - Pink Ladies and Really Want to Fall in Love.

This domestic fare attracts large audiences but lacks the edginess and innuendo of American comedies and dramas. The Chinese media have noted the difference, and wondered aloud how much of the racy or controversial material on Desperate Housewives, including the topics of illegitimate children, homosexuality and teenage sex, will be aired.

"The social topics above are not strange to our metropolis, but for them to appear together on the screen in such concentration, especially on CCTV's television series channel, is very rare," the Xiaoxiang Morning News, a daily in Hunan Province, observed in an article last month.

"We will see whether it fits the national situation of China, whether it contradicts our values or ethics," an unidentified CCTV official told the newspaper.

High U.S. ratings are a factor in bringing shows over, the official told the Hunan paper, but "the existence of cultural differences" can make a show less popular in China. Korean shows, with their more traditional respect for elders and an emphasis on unified, affectionate families, the newspaper wrote, "are easier for audiences to recognize and appreciate."

CCTV declined repeated requests for an interview about Crazy Housewives, but a network source told the Jiangnan Times that the show is "relatively fit for broadcast on CCTV" and not a lot of deletions will be required. The edited and dubbed show should be ready to air by the end of the year, and would most likely be shown after 10 p.m., sometime after the "golden hours" reserved for domestic programming end at 9:30.

`Cultural barrier'

Experts expect the show to encounter resistance, in part because imported programming is often too subtle and complex for viewers here, most of whom have not gone to college.

"American series are too fast-paced for these people and there is a cultural barrier, while the Chinese series are slow-paced and easy to understand," said Miao Di, professor of media research at China Media University in Beijing. "The structures of the American series are pretty complicated. Sometimes there are three or four threads developing at the same time. Even the educated can't sort them out.

"And also, people who really like the American series, they watch them on DVD, the pirated DVDs."

There are also a lot of domestic viewing choices, in spite of state media controls, that make it difficult for a foreign hit to succeed today.

Miao noted that two of the most popular American television series in China aired in the early 1980s, when domestic programming was much more limited. The shows - Garrison's Gorillas and The Man from Atlantis - are remembered by some Chinese to this day, but they're forgotten flops in the United States.

"A lot of Americans haven't even heard of these shows, but at the time there wasn't anything better to watch," Miao said. "When an episode was broadcast at the time, the streets emptied out. No rating statistics were available at that time but they were estimated at 60 percent or 70 percent."

Gady.Epstein@baltsun.com

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