The end or to be continued? Top U.S. TV shows face uncertain fate in China

Story highlights

Hit U.S. TV shows have many fans in China

Authorities have cracked down on file-sharing sites used to download shows

Starting April next year, regulator plans to screen all foreign TV shows

Beijing CNN  — 

When it comes to access to their favorite shows, millions of Chinese fans of U.S. TV series find the plot thickening as 2014 draws to a close.

In late November, many found their entertainment lifeline cut off as authorities shut down two of the country’s most popular file-sharing sites – one with countless episodes of U.S. TV series, and the other with meticulously translated Chinese subtitles for those shows.

State media called the sites known copyright infringers. The sites themselves claimed to be free platforms for people who want to learn about American language and culture – not money-making ventures.

Worse still, fans quickly realized their only viable alternative – China’s legitimate video streaming sites – may soon fall victim to the censors’ tightening grip.

Fleeting optimism

Almost no current U.S. TV series air on China’s broadcast and cable networks.

In February, viewers and critics hailed the release of hit political thriller “House of Cards” on video site Sohu at the same time it aired on Netflix in the U.S. as a sign of liberalization in China’s strictly-controlled media market.

Many Sohu users binge-watched all 13 episodes of the second season, which appeared uncensored despite unflattering story lines about China’s ruling Communist elite.

It had clocked more than 103 million views by mid-December, more than double Netflix’s 50 million global subscribers.

But the sense of optimism among fans quickly dissipated when in April, without warning, the government banned four popular American TV series – including the top-rated sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” – on all streaming sites.

Officials cited violations of copyrights laws and content regulations without giving specifics, even though the shows had been purchased and allowed to stream online for several seasons.

Stockpiling shows

Fans are bracing for more disappointment.

China’s broadcast regulator has strongly hinted from April 2015 it would only approve “healthy” content to be streamed online – a troubling prospect for followers of such shows as zombie horror drama “The Walking Dead” and steamy period drama “Masters of Sex.”

What’s more, online broadcasters may have to wait for a show’s entire season to air in the U.S. before streaming it in China.

Hardcore followers say they dread the prospect of having to wait to watch chopped versions of their beloved shows on streaming sites.

Many young, urban and well-educated fans insist, given the rising government restrictions, only illicit file-sharing services offer the quick and unfettered access they crave.

“I’ve been stockpiling shows by downloading as much as possible – it’s the only way to make me feel safe,” explained Zhao Tianshu, 30, a Beijing lawyer who considers watching American legal dramas like “The Good Wife” – one of the four shows banned in April – on his iPad in the gym a daily highlight.

“I understand copyright concerns, but the policy just seems arbitrary,” said Feng Huiling, 23, a social work graduate student in the Chinese capital who breathlessly lists more than a dozen American TV shows that she regularly watches.

Ideological threat?