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UPDATED: March 1, 2014 NO. 26 JUNE 28, 2012
Finding 'Friends'
American television shows find a devoted Internet audience in China
By Tang Yuankai

Christiansen, who became the director of the situation comedy in 2000, said he was surprised by the show's success in China because it was made for an American audience. He found that people of all countries and regions liked it for different reasons.

He admitted that he didn't expect the humor to cross over and amuse the Chinese audience, as comedy is often culturally specific and difficult to translate. Although the show presented a different culture, certain elements of it were common to all human beings, said Christiansen.

Friends delivered a rare brand of comedy that had wide appeal. When the audience watched Friends, they laughed and cried along with the characters as if they were personal friends, said Christiansen to a group of Chinese journalists.

In his view, Chinese TV series were developing and making progress with shows in the United States. The screenwriting, lighting and sound effects improved as producers learned from one another.

The popularity of American sitcoms like Friends also contributed to the development of China's own TV series.

The Chinese people first saw situation comedy in 1982, when the American TV series My Favorite Martian was broadcast by a number of local TV stations in China. Until the show was aired, most Chinese were unfamiliar with the format.

In the next 10 years another American sitcom, Growing Pains, entertained the Chinese audience with its amusing family-centered stories. The sitcom has since become a favorite form of television in the mainland.

The country saw its first domestic situation comedy in 1994, with the airing of Wo Ai Wo Jia (I Love My Family). The series became extremely popular and is loved by the audience even today. Similar to Growing Pains, the comedy focused on family life. By telling stories of three generations of a family and their neighbors, it presented a vivid picture of ordinary people's lives. It presented Chinese humor with an American format.

Ready for primetime

The success of American TV series has led to comparisons with domestic shows.

"After watching House M.D., I couldn't bear to watch domestic medical dramas any more. I find them simple and dull," said Wang Qiang, a 28-year-old fan.

American shows attach great importance to interacting with the audience. No matter the stage of plot development, series are cancelled when ratings fall, said Wu Mengjie, a media professional.

In the eyes of Gao Qunshu, a Chinese director well known for making TV series about the lives of cops, the Americans have a prominent advantage—respect for commercial and artistic rules.

After a century of development, the Americans had established an effective mechanism for storytelling and movie production, said Gao.

Gao advised young directors not to rush into innovation, but to learn from the existing masterpieces of their American counterparts in the first place. Only in this way can they build a sound foundation for future creativity.

However, there is also encouraging news for domestic TV series, which have seen an increase in ratings despite widespread criticism. The number and size of the series are already enough to make China the world's top producer of television shows.

According to official statistics, only half of these shows can be broadcast on television. Fortunately, the Internet has provided an alternative broadcasting platform for viewership.

The market-oriented operation which started in the 1990s has also served as a driving force for the development of Chinese TV series. The government investment and corporate sponsorship are no longer the only sources of funds for TV show production. More private capital has flown into the industry in the form of commercial investments or loans.

In the meantime, some TV series are being exported to other countries. In 2010, China exported 10,200 hours of TV shows, worth $10 million. In 2011, these two figures rose to 11,000 hours and $12 million, according to Cheng Chunli, a senior marketing director of China International Television Corp.

Email us at: tangyuankai@bjreview.com

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