Game of Thrones - Sex and Violence = 'European Castle Documentary'

What happens when HBO's notoriously explicit show gets the Chinese censorship treatment
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This week, China Central Television (CCTV) made an uncharacteristically bold move: It aired the first season pilot of Game of Thrones, the popular HBO fantasy drama renowned for gruesome violence and graphic sex scenes. The move is likely part of a broader plan to help boost the audience for the country’s state-run traditional television stations, whose notoriously dull, heavily regulated programming has lost viewers to video streaming sites.

Yet CCTV evidently had to hew to rules on “public morality” that the Community Party endorses; the pilot episode of the first season, “Winter is Coming” is about 11 minutes shorter than HBO’s and is dubbed in Mandarin.

If the internet response to CCTV’s tidied-up Game of Thrones is anything to go by, viewers are way too used to watching both pirated and licensed versions of foreign shows to swallow Communist Party-approved drama.

“So they’ve cut about a quarter of all the fight scenes, then a quarter of the nude scenes,” one blogger wrote (paywall) after the show’s first episode was shown over the weekend. “I guess that’s okay if all you want to watch is a medieval European castle documentary.”

Other commentators saw the show’s broadcast as another facet of Chinese censorship. By editing and voicing over the original show, authorities can make sure the show still “communicates socialist values,” one commentator wrote on the discussion forum Zhihu the day after CCTV broadcast and posted Game of Thrones episodes online.

That said, officials don’t seem to be that worried about explicit content. Two rather infamous sex scenes in the pilot episode—one depicting incest and another rape—made it through with only light edits.

For China’s censors, however, tougher calls lie ahead: Game of Thrones only gets gorier and racier as the show progresses (HBO just began airing the fourth season in the US). That makes CCTV’s choice of programming a little odd—particularly given that as part of a campaign to wipe offensive content from the internet, it just banned popular, and relatively wholesome, television shows like The Big Bang Theory from Chinese video streaming sites. (CCTV will also be showing an edited and “healthy” version of the The Big Bang Theory.)

Still, at least one Chinese internet user had a theory about this. “The government isn’t so much controlling for sensitive content, but showing the outside world a certain attitude: ‘I’ll restrict what I want to restrict and I’ll allow what I want to allow,’” another blogger said said on Zhihu. 

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Lily Kuo is a reporter at Quartz covering emerging markets.

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