The Underground Success of Prison Break and What It Means for Chinese Media
It was like a ritual. Every week, minutes after Fox’s drama Prison Break aired in the U.S., Chinese fans of the show began searching for the bit torrent seed of the new episode.
Those with sufficient English watched the show right away, while others waited a couple of hours for the Chinese-subtitled version, which was put together by fellow fans.
After watching, viewers swarmed into message boards, sometimes excited, sometimes dissatisfied, to discuss the show in elaborate detail, from plot to set, from actors to creators. Then, they waited anxiously for the next week’s episode.
Through this stream of distribution, Prison Break has achieved success unlike any other foreign TV drama brought to China. It is a phenomenon.
Since people can’t seem to get enough of the show, one group has set up an online TV station — illegally, of course — that streams the show 24/7. When Fox canceled the show after four seasons, an indication of mediocrity, Chinese fans couldn’t accept this fact and wrote their own sequel to the show. There are even diehard fans shooting their own versions of Prison Break.
Eventually, the creators of the show learned of this huge untapped fan base in China, and decided to capitalize on it. Wentworth Miller, who played Michael Scofield, is widely known in China, has visited three times in one year to do product endorsements and, once, to be interviewed on China’s most popular Oprah-like talk show. Advertisers like Chevrolet have clearly recognized Miller’s appeal, featuring him this April in an ad for their “Chevy Cruze” aimed at young Chinese buyers.
Incredibly, all of this has happened without a single episode having aired on mainland Chinese television. How could this be? Does Prison Break have some intense intrinsic appeal to Chinese viewers, or is it something else?
In 2003, China Central Television (CCTV) spent a huge amount of money to bring HBO’s superb World War II epic, Band of Brothers, to Chinese audiences. But ratings were abysmal. Why? CCTV was already two years behind when they imported the show. Those with any interest had already watched in on pirated DVDs or on the internet.
The lesson is quite obvious for those ambitious content creators in Hollywood who want to include China in their grand international marketing plans. Get in fast. The most likely demographic to watch American TV shows and other Hollywood content is young people in their 20s or 30s, but they are technologically capable enough — and patient enough — to get their favorite content through unconventional means. (If viewers in the U.S. couldn’t watch the latest episode of 24 in prime-time, they would surely do the same.)
Television distributers must recognize this inevitability and tear down the barriers keeping Chinese viewers from American content — such as IP restrictions for audiences outside the U.S. watching full length episodes on the broadcaster’s website. Instead, they should deliver the content to Chinese audiences just as they do to American audiences. Technology and global Hollywood culture have already prepared both the creators and the viewers to do what was once unthinkable: to simultaneously distribute content on a mass scale around the world.
Photo by Ms..G
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