When Chinese TV Rips Off The Colbert Report

Will the country ever have a satirical talk show of its own?
Xu Mengge/Sina Weibo

BEIJING — He may be an award-winning satirist in the United States, but in China, even Stephen Colbert is not beyond parody: A provincial TV channel in the country has produced a show that borrows rather liberally from the popular American program.

The Banquet, broadcast on Ningxia Satellite TV, lifted the entire opening credits and other graphics from The Colbert Report. Everything from the host’s entrance—flying down the screen as English words buzz past—to the star-spangled background is mimicked, and even the show’s theme music, the guitar riff from “Baby Mumbles” by Cheap Trick, is reproduced note for note.

Online, Chinese were quick to criticize the rebranded show—once known by the staid name Guandian Zhisheng (Comment Matters)— which debuted this January.

“This is down-right plagiarism: Absolutely shameless. I hate this kind of thing,” remarked a young woman on Weibo, China’s Twitter. “Coolgirl1982” was concerned that the show could embarrass China. “With the great popularity of The Colbert Report, don’t you know how easily Colbert can make a laughingstock out of China, and ensure the whole world knows about it?” she asked.

The Banquet isn’t the first Chinese show to be accused of copycatting. In 2012, the American talk-show host Conan O'Brien discovered, with amusement, that the opening credits to his show Conan had been replicated by Dapeng Debade, a cheaply made program on the web portal Sohu. Conan’s good-natured response—and a sincere apology from host Dong Chengpeng, who calls himself Dapeng Dong—did away with any hard feelings. The next year, an advertisement for the luxury liquor brand Jian Nan Chun lifted the entire opening sequence, without acknowledgement, from the popular HBO show Game of Thrones. And to prove that such imitations are not exclusive to China’s mainland, TVB, a popular Hong Kong channel owned by the late tycoon Run Run Shaw, last year planted the CBS series Person of Interest’s opening into its detective show Tian Yan (Sky Watch). 

A side-by-side comparison of The Banquet's intro (left) and The Colbert Report's (right). (Xu Mengge/Sina Weibo)

The casual reaction of Americans to these infringements—Conan O’Brien even offered Dapeng a professionally designed replacement intro—may have emboldened TVZone, the state-owned production company responsible for The Banquet.

“[The Colbert Report] can go ahead and sue us!” company spokesman ‘Mr. Tan’ (who refused to disclose his first name) told me on the phone, adding, “We haven’t received any complaints from their lawyers.” But within hours of these remarks, the next edition of The Banquet had replaced some of its opening sequence with hand-filmed footage apparently shot in the company’s office. (The background’s Colbert-esque graphics still remained, though).

***

In China, interest in foreign television is still modest, owing in part to language barriers. According to ttmeiju.com, a popular Chinese-language website for downloading foreign shows, The Colbert Report has a regular audience of about 460 (free and illegal) downloads per week; Comedy Central’s The Daily Show averages about 800, while HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher attracts around 1,200. However, versions with Chinese-language subtitles garner tens of thousands of downloads, and chatter about the shows on microblogs has exploded. Fan sites such as thedailyshowcn.com, which has around 40,000 followers on Weibo, update as often as their American counterparts. And it’s not just satire, either: The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Saturday Night Live have proven so popular that Sohu (the portal that hosts Dapeng Debade) recently signed a deal to broadcast them legitimately. 

Domestic producers have taken note of the phenomenon. “Thanks to the Internet, [Chinese] people get to know what happens everyday much more quickly than before,” Dong Chengpeng, presenter of Dapeng Debade, told Blog Weekly magazine. But just watching is no longer enough. “Now the public wants to know what we think about these events.”

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Valentina Luo is a news researcher and freelance writer based in China.

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