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China’s Central Perk

Viewer feedback affects 'Partners' plot

BEIJING — The legions of viewers who miss the NBC megaskein “Friends” may want to tune in to a series about the lives of six Chinese twentysomething friends who live together after they were tricked into buying the same apartment.

The day-to-day adventures of the characters, called the “Soul Partners” have a lot in common with Monica, Joey, Rachel, Phoebe and Chandler on the U.S. skein. But rather than rely on expensive scriptwriters to decide the course of the show — now into the fourth of a planned 20 episodes — the writers of “Soul Partners” listen to viewer feedback before working on the following week’s plot.

And the skein is featured on a video-sharing Web site called Mofile, rather than the usual TV pubcasters.

“My colleagues and I are all fond of ‘Friends’ so I think if I record funny scenes like in our daily life, it will amuse many people,” Xun Xiang, a Shanghai office worker, who came up with the idea for the show when she saw her co-workers joking during lunch break, told the Shanghai Evening Post.

She took the idea to Mofile, which is one of a number of homegrown video-sharing Web sites, including Yoqoo, Tudou and 56.com, all of them proving increasingly popular with China’s 137 million webizens.

The four-bedroom apartment in Shanghai’s Songjiang district was given to them by a local property developer, and the shows feature the developer’s ads.

Coming up with a “Friends”-style series isn’t news in the West, but in China, such a skein is an example of how the country is changing. Instead of living with their parents until they are married, many urban residents now have their own apartments.

There have been more than 1.5 million viewers for the show, which is gaining audience share in other Chinese-speaking areas, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore.

The actors are all amateurs in their early 20s, hanging around an apartment in Shanghai; they were picked from a group of 1,000 applicants. The actors were told they must “remain composed” when delivering jokes during the show.

“They need to showcase their personalities in front of the camera,” says director Zheng Kai. His day job is at a computer game company.

By transmitting on the Web, “Soul Partners” can bypass the usual strict regulations on broadcasting, and the online voting is a rare form of democracy in a country where ballots are generally forbidden.

The “Idol”-style show “Mongolian Sour Milk Yoghurt Supergirl Contest” fell foul of officialdom because fans voted by mobile phone and lobbied for support for their favorite contestants in downtown areas in China.

Visitors to the official fan Web site of “Soul Partners” have been critical so far, saying the plots have not been well organized. Viewers have also accused the producers of being overly influenced by “Friends.”

“The performance of actors is far below the average level. Hope you make more progress,” posted one anonymous visitor.

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