"Saturday Night Live" Comes to China's Internet

By Louise Watt
|  Friday, Jan 3, 2014  |  Updated 10:09 PM CDT
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A popular online video site is bringing the irreverent, topical humor of "Saturday Night Live" to China.

The late-night U.S. comedy sketch show that regularly mocks politicians, popular culture and celebrities is being shown exclusively on the website of Sohu Video, a unit of Chinese online media group and Nasdaq-listed Sohu.com Inc.

Ten episodes from the current 39th season of "SNL" are available now. Future episodes will be available online without subtitles the Monday after airing in the United States, and a version with Chinese subtitles and explanations of cultural references will be available at 10 p.m. the following Saturday, Sohu said in its announcement Thursday.

The NBC network show has been a comedy proving ground since its inception with Eddie Murphy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon and Will Ferrell among its cast over the years. Many of its original sketches and musical performances have been made into movies — including the 1992 hit "Wayne's World" — or gone viral online.

Topics have featured China, including a sketch of a press conference with then Chinese President Hu Jintao berating President Barack Obama over the national debt.

But Sohu Chairman and CEO Charles Zhang said he didn't expect the show's edgy themes to get them into trouble in China.

"Things that are controversial in America are probably not controversial in China," he said. "And this talk show is in the spirit of fun and humor. I don't think there will be any problem."

Chinese films and TV shows are routinely censored to prevent criticism of leaders or socially sensitive content, including sexually suggestive humor, and "SNL" frequently tests those boundaries.

Zhang said the show, if popular in China, could inspire Chinese companies to produce shows with similar formats — although content was another matter. "It's a different political setting," he said at a news conference, also attended by American stand-up comedian Joe Wong and Beijing-born TV host and musician Kelly Cha.

Sohu Video's site, like many other Chinese online video sites, licenses many hit American TV shows alongside Japanese animation series, Chinese variety shows and in-house programs. Sohu's early U.S. programs were "Lost" and "The Big Bang Theory," and last year it obtained the exclusive online broadcast rights for the second season of hit reality show "The Voice of China," which generated nearly 2 billion video views, according to the company.

Zhang said U.S. TV shows have been successful at generating advertising revenue online in China. Zhang didn't give a figure for how much they had paid for exclusive rights to "Saturday Night Live" within China, but said it was cheaper per episode than for a U.S. drama series.

China's government restricts foreign access to the country's television audience and bars most of its cable operators from carrying foreign channels. Online video provides more access for foreign productions.

Unlike a few years ago, most of the Western TV shows and movies found on Chinese websites today are licensed, although pirated content still exists. Zhang welcomed an announcement earlier this week from a government agency labeling China's largest search engine, Baidu Inc., and software company QVOD the top two copyright violators last year. The National Copyright Administration of China also fined both companies 250,000 yuan ($40,000), the highest penalty at its disposal.

Complaints by Sohu and other online video providers had prompted its investigation, which found the two linked to websites hosting infringed content.

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