China goes from copying 'Conan' to paying for TV show's rights

China goes from copying 'Conan' to paying for TV show's rights
Conan O'Brien, left, and Andy Richter will soon be airing in China. (Evan Agostini / Invision/Associated Press)

Two years ago, the online Chinese comedy program "Da Peng Debacle" famously ripped off the animated opening sequence of Conan O'Brien's TBS talk show -- even down to the host's orange hair. Now,, the same company that produced "Da Peng," is officially (and legitimately) bringing the carrot-topped comedian to online viewers in China.

"After successfully presenting 'Saturday Night Live' and 'Ellen DeGeneres' to Chinese audiences, I'm delighted to announce that Sohu will also start carrying another popular talk show from the U.S., 'Conan,'" Sohu Chief Executive Charles Zhang told a small group of reporters in his office in a trendy building in northwest Beijing on Tuesday.


"When I was living in Los Angeles in the 1990s, I remembered watching Conan on late night TV for the first time," said Zhang, who was educated at MIT. "And I became so excited that there was finally someone from the Boston area on a talk show. His jokes reminded me a lot of New England."

After years of piracy, a large number of U.S. TV shows are now being licensed for online streaming by Chinese Internet companies including Sohu, Yoku and Tencent. Characters from popular dramas such as "Breaking Bad" have become household names -- at least among a certain class of households (namely better-educated and perhaps English-speaking).

Led by Zhang, who calls himself a big fan of U.S. TV programs, Sohu has started to experiment beyond dramas by introducing American TV talk shows late last year. Although Zhang refused to disclose how much Sohu pays for each episode of the U.S. TV dramas or talk shows, he noted that Sohu's spending on such content in 2014 had almost doubled compared with the previous year, mainly due to licensing fees driven up by increased competition from rival websites.

Sohu first presented "Saturday Night Live" in December and added "Ellen DeGeneres" in January. Like U.S. dramas, the American talk shows on Sohu come with Chinese subtitles. However, the appeal of such shows may ultimately be limited because subtitles can go only so far.

The cultural context required to comprehend all the punch lines and jokes in such shows is quite high, and it's almost impossible for a Chinese viewer to understand the programs by relying entirely on subtitles. Zhang, though, said he's been encouraged by the viewership rates.

"I was surprised by the English skills of our viewers in China. The amount of traffic those American talk shows generated on our website was unexpected for me. There were over 1 million views on each episode of 'Saturday Night Live' and 'Ellen DeGeneres,'" he said. To cater to some Chinese viewers who are obsessed with learning English, Sohu even offered versions of the talk shows without subtitles as a challenge for this group.

The language barrier is but one factor Sohu must contend with as it expands its offerings of American programming; potential run-ins with government censors are also a concern. Chinese censors are on alert for any program that touches topics related to China or portrays the nation in a slightly negative way, and shows with sensitive content can be removed immediately. Two episodes of ABC's hit drama "The Blacklist" that portrayed authorities in China as villains were pulled offline this year.

Earlier this year, several popular American TV shows carried by Sohu, including "The Big Bang Theory,"   were forced offline by Chinese censors without explanation. That raised concerns among viewers --  and American producers -- about whether authorities would continue to allow Chinese Internet companies to license U.S. shows.

With O'Brien's talk show touching on a wide variety of topics that could be considered controversial, reporters could not help but query Zhang on Tuesday about whether it could face a similar destiny as "The Big Bang Theory" in China. Zhang played down the removal of the U.S. TV shows from Sohu as an "isolated incident" but refused to offer further details about why he regarded it as such.

He predicted the take-downs would not have slow the growth of U.S. TV shows in the online streaming video market.

"Many officials in China today were born in the 1980s. They're also fans of U.S. TV shows themselves. I don't think they'll implement a ban on such content," Zhang said. The announcement of Sohu's U.S. TV programming for the summer further demonstrated his confidence. Sohu plans to add 20 American TV dramas that run through the next two months. Halle Berry's TV debut "Extant" and Michael Bay's "The Last Ship" are among Sohu's 12 exclusive offerings. Sohu will also feature eight TV shows that include Showtime's "Masters of Sex" and "Ray Donovan."

"All of our U.S. TV shows follow the same approval procedure before they're allowed to appear on our website. There's no specific or additional requirement for talk shows like the 'Conan' show," said Wang Yi, head of content acquisition and production at Sohu. "The version of the show with Chinese subtitles appear one day after they air in the U.S. only because it takes time get the content properly translated."

"Conan" debuted June 27 on Sohu and already has generated more than 1.6 million views. Based on the comments viewers left online, many are trying to fully grasp the quirky comedian's spontaneous and often self-deprecating humor.

"Can you add both Chinese and English subtitles please?" was one of the most popular remarks viewers left on the Web page for the show.


Tommy Yang in the Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

Twitter: @JulieMakLAT