Pirates zero in on small-screen hits

Illegal DVDs have helped popularize foreign shows

SHANGHAI — Many of U.S. TV’s biggest shows, including “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos” and “24,” are huge hits in China — but not for the companies that spawned them.

DVD pirates, used to making a killing on quick releases of Hollywood films before they reach the bigscreen in China, are turning their attention to smallscreen hits.

With imported programming on Mainland television restricted to a maximum of 25% of total viewing, the illegal trade in copied DVDs and VCDs seems a natural fit.

Even without the official quota, many U.S. and European shows would not make it onto Chinese TV without severe trimming for sexual content. With a show like HBO’s “Sex and the City,” that doesn’t leave much to air.

“DVDs sell for about $1 a disc,” explains one local pirate retailer.

“So, with a film like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ I know I can only make a dollar per customer. But each season of ‘The Sopranos’ costs about $10, and there are three seasons available here now.”

DVDs for the first four seasons of “Sex and the City” also have been available for some time.

Pirate DVDs have made some of the shows into household names.

“Pretty much everyone in Shanghai knows about ‘Sex and the City’s’ Carrie and her friends now,” says Ying Du, a journalist who presents a popular culture show on local radio.

“They are part of young people’s culture. I think that is because the characters’ lives are so similar to the lives of young people in the big cities, especially Shanghai.”

Advice shows are a popular staple on radio stations in China’s rapidly developing east coast cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

And domestic and imported Chinese-language magazines battle for a cut of the publishing market with increasingly lurid “relationship” stories and sex advice columns.

A typical column in the May edition of “New Bride” included questions and answers on impotence and how to increase sex drive.

The exploits of Carrie & Co. also are winning column inches.

A recent article in a Shanghai newspaper surveyed the attitudes of young locals toward the series, despite the fact that “Sex” is not officially available on Chinese cable or terrestrial channels.

HBO is received in some foreign residential compounds and high-end hotels that are permitted to install satellite dishes. But satellite remains officially off-limits for the local population.

Now the legitimate TV channels are hitting back.

“Hot Ladies” (Se Nulang), a Taiwanese TV drama touted as the Chinese version of “Sex and the City,” hit mainland screens last month and is already causing a stir.

With its comparatively open attitude to sex and relationships, “Hot Ladies” is one of a slate of youth-oriented legitimate TV shows trying to wean auds off illegal discs.