Wednesday, August 09, 2006

U.S. TV invading China

An article in the NYTimes today tracks widespread translation and illegal distribution of U.S. TV shows in China.

What is most remarkable about the effort, which involves dozens of people working in teams all over China, is that it is entirely voluntary. Mr. Ding’s group, which goes by the name Fengruan, is locked in fierce competition with a handful of similar outfits that share the same ambition: making American popular culture available in near-real time free to Chinese audiences, dodging Chinese censors and American copyright lawyers.

“We’ve set a goal of producing 40 TV shows a week, which basically means all of the shows produced by Fox, ABC, CBS and NBC,” Mr. Ding said, fairly bubbling about the project.

“What this means,” he said, “is that when the Americans broadcast shows, we will translate them. Our speed surpasses all the other groups in China, and our goal is to be the best American transcription service in the world.”

To a person, the adapters say they are willing to devote long hours to this effort out of a love for American popular culture. Many, including Mr. Ding, say they learned English by obsessively watching American movies and television programs.
Others say they pick up useful knowledge about everything from changing fashion and mores to medical science.

“It provides cultural background relating to every aspect of our lives: politics, history and human culture,” Mr. Ding said. “These are the things that make American TV special. When I first started watching ‘Friends,’ I found the show was full of information about American history and showed how America had rapidly developed. It’s more interesting than textbooks or other ways of learning.”

On an Internet forum about the downloaded television shows, a poster who used the name Plum Blossom put it another way.

“After watching these shows for some time, I felt the attitudes of some of the characters were beginning to influence me,” the poster wrote. “It’s hard to describe, but I think I learned a way of life from some of them. They are good at simplifying complex problems, which I think has something to do with American culture.”

Rendering American slang into Chinese is a special challenge. In an episode of “Sex and the City,” the line “I thought you two would hit it off” became “I thought you two would generate electricity together.”

Well, some of the quotes sound a bit robotic, and I doubt that people are watching TV solely to increase personal knowledge, but in general this seems like a promising development for the U.S. American TV networks are unhappy that people are watching their shows for free. Clearly, in this case, what is bad for the networks is good for the U.S. If young Chinese are enthralled by U.S. culture, they are likely to be more sympathetic to Americans and to U.S. policies in general. Global stability in the coming decades will depend on good relations between the U.S. and China as China's wealth and influence continue to grow.

This is one of the best public diplomacy initiatives the State Department has never promoted. Given Karen Hughes' track record of late, it is probably best that the government take a hands off approach to this. Letting this practice proceed and develop relatively unhindered would be the best thing the U.S. could do to promote U.S. culture and values in China and around the world.

Fortunately, it doesn't look at this point as though there's much the government or the networks can do to stop this. Also, this is a two-way street, since there are programs Americans can download to watch Chinese TV. This came in handy recently when I wanted to watch the World Cup but found that no non-cable networks carried it. Thank you CCTV5!

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