American TV shows such as "The Big Bang Theory" and "Breaking Bad" have found huge fan bases in China, thanks to deals with online video portals that license the programs and make them available just hours after their U.S. debuts. But such arrangements now appear to be in serious jeopardy because of stricter government screening procedures.
Starting in 2015, Chinese Internet companies that plan to carry foreign TV shows on their websites will be required to submit the entire season with subtitles to local authorities for approval, the Beijing News and other state-run media outlets reported Monday. All foreign TV shows must obtain an "import serial number" before they are allowed to appear on Chinese websites; a similar requirement will apply to films streamed online.
Unlike Chinese TV series, most U.S. programs do not film an entire season before broadcasts begin. The new requirement could result in long delays that diminish Chinese viewers' interest — or drive them to look for pirated versions, industry experts and fans said.
Such a shift could reduce the fees that Chinese sites are willing to pay for foreign programming. Lately, competition among Chinese Internet sites for exclusive foreign content has helped drive up licensing fees.
Until now, Chinese video portals have generally self-screened foreign film and video content on their websites. But that self-censorship lacks the rigor that authorities impose on shows aired on conventional television and in movie theaters, allowing online viewers heavier doses of sex and violence.
On top of the stricter screening rules, the number of foreign TV shows carried by Chinese websites cannot exceed 30% of the number of domestic TV shows carried the previous year, the Beijing News reported.
China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television — which rarely comments on its directives — offered no elaboration or explanation for the changes.
Representatives from online video sites Sohu and iQiyi also declined to comment on how the new directive would affect them.
Shows like "Homeland" and "Madam Secretary" are now just one click away for Chinese fans. Those shows are updated each Monday on Sohu.com, for example. "Gotham" and "2 Broke Girls" are posted every Tuesday; Wednesday brings the latest episodes of "The Flash" and "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D."
"I'm already used to watching 'The Arrow' every Thursday and 'Z Nation' every Saturday," said Wu Renchu, a fan from Shanghai. "I can't stand having to wait one to two months before catching up with my favorite shows."
Wu worried that the restrictions could drive fans back to piracy.
"Most Chinese fans of American TV shows are English-speaking and tech-savvy," he said. "It's a really sad situation if pirated content becomes popular again in China because of this."
Companies like Sohu and iQiyi have worked hard in recent years to bring properly licensed content to their websites. The shows are generally offered free, with advertising.
Sohu Chief Executive Charles Zhang, a fan of American television, said last month that China has solved its piracy problem thanks to the popularity of licensed foreign TV shows on the Internet.
Yang Xianghua, a senior vice president of iQiyi, is in California this week to meet with Hollywood studios about releasing movies on his website to Chinese viewers simultaneously as they premiere globally.
"As there's a quota on how many foreign films can be shown in Chinese cinemas each year, I think this is a great way to bring more interesting Hollywood movies to the Chinese audience," Yang said. Users on iQiyi.com would pay about $3.25 for new releases — much less than the price of a movie ticket.
But with Chinese authorities looking determined to regulate foreign content on the Internet more strictly, Yang's biggest obstacle to new partnerships may not be studio executives in L.A. but government regulators in Beijing.