China Hammers Big Bang Theory

Big Bang Theory superimposed on China city

Images courtesy of CBS Television/Fotalia

China Hammers Big Bang Theory
| published February 20, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

It’s easy to forget sometimes that China—officially still known as the People’s Republic of China—is a communist power, the largest Marxist-Leninist nation on the planet. That means that its billion-plus people are still subject to the notions most commonly associated with communism: especially freedom of press and access to the media.

Among the things that China forbids is Facebook, the ubiquitous social media service which now reaches 1.2 billion people worldwide. China also limits or denies access to a variety of websites, news services, and online platforms, and it frequently micro-manages search engine requests for specific items—as it did most famously on the 25th anniversary of the massacre at Tiananmen Square, quashing access to any news or retrospectives on the episode.

But Chinese television audiences have developed a love of American TV programming, which now streams via a variety of tools and platforms into the homes and apartments of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens. Among their favorite shows: CBS’s long running highly-rated comedy, The Big Bang Theory. BBT is so loved in China that it recently ranked as the most-streamed TV show in the history of streaming, in any country.

But that was then, and this is now. Big Bang Theory is now effectively cut off for its millions of Chinese fans, all now sad for their loss of their favorite characters like Sheldon, Leonard, and Penny.

In late December, Chinese media managers began a systematic but solid shutdown of access to Sheldon and the gang. By the end of January, BBT was gone. Streaming of American TV shows (as well as British and Australian programming) must be subject to the same conditions of oversight and vetting as any other form of media, so sayeth China’s SAPPRFT (State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film & TV). Though perhaps laughably inoffensive to most American and British audiences for its frequent references to romance, sexual content, and bodily functions, those same TV gags proved too much for the Chinese censors, who balked when—upon closer inspection—they discovered that show implied sexual dalliances and frequent out-of-the-box relationships on a routine basis. So, no more to Big Bang.

CBS’s popular Big Bang Theory, however, is now in good company. Chinese censors have also taken offense at dozens of other extremely popular U.S. programming, including Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Shameless, and House of Cards. The new series Call Saul, a spinoff of Breaking Bad, is also on the hit list. Chinese media censors are apparently watching American-made television very closely. After Chinese media managers took a close look at the British-made Downton Abbey, another highly-rated series popular in both the U.S. and the U.K., it too got pulled.

HBO’s popular series Boardwalk Empire, starring Steve Buscemi, also got pulled, presumably because of its frank portrayals of American gangland violence in the early 20th Century, but perhaps also for its occasional nudity, prostitution and sex, all parts of Atlantic City life in those same years.

But the removal of Big Bang Theory, some media analysts suggest, may have had less to do with the occasional scenes of Leonard and Penny in the same bedroom, or Sheldon’s often acidic brand of disdain for his roommates and colleagues, and more to do with the show’s sheer power and popularity. The fact that the show is an overt vehicle for American pop culture and anti-conventionalism may be secondary to worries that the program had become too much of an obsession for its younger Chinese TV viewers.

In the meantime, Chinese audiences still have access to hundreds of American and foreign-made television programming, but most analysts now say that Chinese officials will be more closely watching the habits of the watchers—if for no other reason than to make sure someone like Sheldon Cooper does not become China’s most popular person.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Gmail: China Versus Google; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; December 30, 2014.

Big Bucks Versus Big Bang; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; February 6, 2014.