Why 'Desperate Housewives' flopped in China
'Desperate Housewives' has bombed in China.
The American soap opera debuted on CCTV8 on December 19 and ran for a week, covering the whole first season. The practice of airing three back-to-back episodes each night was meant to satisfy the Chinese appetite of gobbling up serial drama, but may have left little time for digestion as a consequence, as some argued.
The slot of 10 pm through 1 am is designated for foreign fare since primetime is reserved for domestic shows. That basically winnows out casual viewers and early risers, leaving only rabid fans and night owls.
The protectionist measure can be justified to an extent, but may go against commercial interests: Why should I put a hit show into the late-night line-up when it could have attracted a much larger audience?
Preliminary results show that this award-winning series garnered a ratings point of 0.5, compared with the usual 3-4 points for this time slot. In the United States, it was the most watched new series when it was first launched in October 2004 and, despite some erosion, has been comfortably in the top-10 league. Around the world in 202 territories, it has been setting ratings record here and there, hitting the number one spot in countries as diverse as Germany, South Africa and Singapore.
So, how come a runaway hit ended up running aground in the largest potential market in terms of viewership?
Besides the inconvenient time slot, some criticize the dubbing for purging the original flavour from the dialogue. (Chinese dubbing actists tend to have perfect but homogeneous voices and exaggerated reading, they say.)
The trimming of a few scenes has also been singled out as a culprit, but the authorities in charge explained there was very little censorship except for the toning down of some racy lines.
While all these factors might matter, they do not shed light on the most fundamental cultural discrepancy. Just look at South Korean soaps similarly scheduled. They have been delivering ratings many times that of 'Desperate Housewives', turning legions of nine-to-fivers into nighthawks and creating Monday morning blues every morning.
Ultimately, it's the show that matters. To put it bluntly, "Housewives" does not have a demographic fit in the Chinese market. True, it is high in quality and has suspense, thrill and murder as plot hooks to entice a wider audience. But a typical television viewer in China is not someone well-versed in Western arts and literature, mesmerized by parallel narratives and ingenious tracking shots. It is usually someone with no advanced education but simply wants to kick off her shoes and relax after a hard day's work.
The show's fanfare was whipped up by media types exposed to Western reports and who have probably already seen it on DVD pirated more or less. As a matter of fact, many people who tuned in to CCTV but found the dubbing or scheduling annoying eventually saw the airing as a teaser, turning to the DVD market for the whole nine yards.
These young urbanites may make up a decent market segment for many product categories. But television being a mass entertainment platform, it cannot depend solely on the opinion leaders. Rather, it needs a bigger turnout willing to get on the ride.
For one thing, American serials like "Desperate Housewives", with their witty innuendoes and multiple twists, are too fast-paced for Chinese taste. Some viewers complained they would get lost with the plot after a bathroom break. But with South Korean soaps, even if you skip three episodes, you can still follow the story lines.
On a deeper level, life on Wisteria Lane, the fictional California community in Housewives, is too far removed from ordinary Chinese, even the burgeoning middle class. A Chinese teenager would never, in her right mind, advise her single mother on the etiquette of dating. When Chinese housewives get into an adulterous mood, they would not turn to teenaged gardeners, who are usually migrant workers in rags, but to people with deeper pockets and higher ranks. A Chinese woman may act as fastidious as Bree Van De Kamp, but she would not take on the arch-conservative stance of an American Republican. A Chinese super-mom, in a country with family planning policy encouraging for one child, faces challenges very different from tending four unruly kids.
Simply put, the show fails to connect with the vast number of television viewers here because it implicitly requires prior knowledge of the US middle-class lifestyle, exaggerated for dramatic effect of course. That shouldn't dampen the enthusiasm of those who crave for quality programming, but its target audience shrinks from the culturally curious to the culturally adventurous.
(China Daily 12/31/2005 page4)
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