American TV series are a big hit in China. As a source of soft power influence from the west to the east, many hit sitcoms, dramas and action series have been largely welcomed by Chinese audiences. Whether or not it was the intention of American producers to reach Chinese fans, it is nonetheless a great opportunity to further understand what appeals to Chinese people. Furthermore, there is great potential in terms of cross-border co-branding and celebrity endorsements. We analyzed the top American TV series in China to see what it teaches us about appealing to Chinese consumers.
The top 10 American TV series in China, over the past 10 years
- The Big Bang Theory 17,886 (Baidu Index rating)
- Game of Thrones 10,581
- Prison Break 10,349
- 2 Broke Girls 7,540
- Friends 6,841
- Breaking Bad 5,330
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. 5,300
- House of Cards 5,053
- Modern Family 3,479
- Sex and the City 3,387
Based on Baidu index data from 2011-2020, we can see from the list that top shows include a variety of categories, from comedy, romance to history, and crime.
To go deeper in understanding Chinese consumers’ preference, a list of top shows sorted by categories tells us more.
Top rated American series in China by category
The top American Comedy/Romance Shows in China
The 5 highest rated American comedy shows ranked by Douban
- Friends 9.7
- Modern Family 9.5
- The Big Bang Theory 9.3
- Sex and the City 9.0
- Shameless 9.0
Most of the top comedies and romance shows are sitcoms. Families or a group of friends live together and carry over from episode to episode. The stories for each episode are independent and also related to the main characters in the long term. These kind of series are easy to watch. The jokes are understandable even without knowing the context of the plot, many of these light-hearted sitcoms are cited as sources for learning English.
Though Friends has never been approved to air in China, it came out online at the right time to become enormously popular, which was was at the crossroads of China’s reform and opening up and the golden age for piracy, due to lax copyright laws. The show was a window to American culture for Chinese youth. Friends was abruptly pulled off air due to ‘copyright issues’ in 2018, causing thousands of Chinese fans to mourn the end of an era.
Source: Time Out Shanghai, photograph by Sophia Huang, Central Perk, Shanghai coffee shop based on the TV show Friends.
The Big Bang Theory has also found a large following in China. Some netizens have said that they find the geeky characters relatable.
What all these shows have in common is a sort of affliliative style of humor, which is popular in collectivist cultures like China. Affiliative humor is where jokes are relatable, and bring people together. This is in contrast to the ‘aggressive’ or outrageous type of humor which is hugely popular in American shows like South Park, but not so popular in China.
Additionally, despite America also having plenty of family-oriented sitcoms, the sitcoms that center on friend groups are more popular in China. This could be because the target audience shares some of the same demographics as the characters, 20-30 years old and educated.
Top American Drama/Crime Shows in China
Source: TV trailers.com, The Wire is one of the top American series in China
The 5 highest rated American drama and action shows ranked by Douban
- The Wire 9.6
- Better Call Saul 9.5
- Breaking Bad 9.3
- The Sopranos 9.2
- Game of Thrones 9.0
For crime or drama shows, story and plot could are very important to Chinese audiences. The audience is curious about mysteries and crimes, things that we won’t see much of in normal life.
What is interesting is The Wire, based off real life issues in Baltimore, dealing with societal problems like gangs and drugs and played by a diverse American cast is that the setting for The Wire couldn’t be more different from the daily lives of Chinese, yet it has received high ratings. This signals the Chinese audience’s increasing curiosity, understanding and ability to put themselves in another’s shoes.
When it comes to crime and dramas, HBO is one case of an American television network that has successfully reached China. Though HBO itself is not available in the country, they have partnered with Tencent in 2014 to bring their programming to China.
Top American History/War Shows in China
Source: Meijumei.net, Band of Brothers is the top American war series in China.
The top 5 history and war shows ranked by Douban score
- Band of Brothers 9.6 (Score by Douban)
- Chernobyl 9.6
- Narcos 9.4
- Boardwalk Empire 9.3
- The Pacific 8.9
People like history shows because they are based on true stories, no matter how unbelievable or ridiculous they are. You can learn the real history from these series and enjoy the great plot at the same time. Western culture and history are pretty appealing to the Chinese audience.
China also has several of its own historical shows, highlighting heroes of the republican era from 1912 to 1949, along with a myriad of historical dramas, which blend fantasy with various periods of China’s 5,000 year long history.
When it comes to western historical shows, Chinese have high ratings of WWII series. Perhaps it is the heroism that is appealing, but another aspect is that it’s a time when the US and China relations were at a high, united against a common enemy: Japan.
The rating score data has been collected from Douban (豆瓣), a Chinese social networking service website that allows registered users to record information and create content related to film, books, music, recent events, and activities in Chinese cities. Scores on Douban represent the Chinese audience, since Chinese netizens give the ratings.
Comparison of the popularity of top shows between China and the US
Most of the shows have a higher score in Douban which means American TV series are pretty popular in China, many of them apparently more so than in the US. After comparing scores from different sites, we can see some of the shows have a very big difference. For example, 1.9 difference in ratings for Sex and the City, over 1 for The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family. For Friends, Better Call Saul, Boardwalk Empire, and Narcos, these also have a score difference around 0.8.
What makes some American TV shows so popular among Chinese
The first reason that causes this difference is that there are some topics and plots that are not common in Chinese series, sex, violence, and crime for instance. People are interested in those missing areas in common series due to the traditional culture or censor system. Apart from this, Chinese people are also interested in American culture and life. Series like Friends or Modern Family that show people’s daily lives get extra credit from Chinese viewers, and people can also learn English through these kind of shows. Also, series like The Big Bang Theory receives a higher score in China, this is because Chinese audience that watches westerns shows is highly educated to begin with, and may find the geeky characters and their love of science relatable.
There are more reasons why Sex and the City could have the biggest score difference in this list. This show is about four women with different personalities and lifestyles looking for their true loves when they are no longer young. These story lines touch on many modern social issues which affect Chinese women such as sexuality, promiscuity and femininity. There is still a level of taboo around those social issues in China. In real life, women are under pressure from the traditional Chinese culture to do things like marry and have a child before 30. While this show makes people think about those issues, the actresses can do whatever they what at anytime they like. This show is so popular because it makes women think about how beautiful life could be if they were to stop following the rules.
The genuine personalities of characters are also an important factor to attract Chinese audiences. The gay couple in Modern Family, Mitchell and Cameron, represent characters that would not exist in Chinese series. Most Chinese audiences don’t like Cameron since he has so many faults, such as being too selfish, too sensitive, bad at keeping secrets, and careless. However, this gives the character all the more realness. There are no perfect people in the world, everyone has faults and those faults make us who we are. A lot of people admit that they think Mitchell and Cameron match with each other very well even though they don’t like Cameron’s character. Additionally, while homosexual couples are allowed, scenes of intimacy between homosexuals are strictly forbidden.
Censoring of American TV shows in China
The censoring process in China is strict. Censoring causes two main problems. First, each series could take months to be censored. Second, with some of the scenes cut off, the show will not be as attractive as before. Both problems could result in consumer and interest loss.
Data source: Entertainment Capital, daxue consulting analysis, censored content of Games of Thrones in China
Most American TV series need to go through this censoring process before airing in China. Taking Game of Thrones as an example, we can see what types of scenes are subject to be cut. The parts most often left out contain nudity and sex, which add up to over 66.7%. Scenes which contain profanity, violence, and blood and gore will also be censored and each accounts for about 10% of the removed scenes.
What this says about Chinese consumers
Chinese viewers of American TV series are a special group of people, they are young, mostly between the ages of 20-29, and they are highly educated. Their motivation for watching American TV shows include entertainment, learning English, love of the plot or character, and interest in American culture. This also can be supported by the data from the comparison of rating scores. Shows that contain more interesting content for young people will appeal to Chinese consumers more. Meanwhile, the less scenes of a sexual or violent nature a series has, the more likely the show is to pass the censoring process.
- The target audience for most American TV series in China is educated millennials. This will impact not only which shows succeed in China, but also should be kept in mind in further marketing tactics involving American TV shows IP.
- Chinese humor is affiliative, meaning it brings people together. Hence friendships are central to American TV series that are popular in China. On the other hand, family shows are not as popular.
- When it comes to actions, drug and crime dramas are surprisingly popular among Chinese audiences. It is a slice of western culture that doesn’t exist as much in China.
- WWII is a popular era for Chinese audiences, not only as a time for celebrating heroism, but also as a time when China-US relationships were very positive.