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Live From Beijing: A Disappearing ‘Saturday Night Live’

BEIJING — When NBCUniversal announced last year that a version of “Saturday Night Live” would be made for a Chinese audience, it was unclear how a show that thrives on political satire could survive in a country run by a Communist Party that tolerates no criticism.

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Zoe Mou
Mike Ives, New York Times

BEIJING — When NBCUniversal announced last year that a version of “Saturday Night Live” would be made for a Chinese audience, it was unclear how a show that thrives on political satire could survive in a country run by a Communist Party that tolerates no criticism.

Now, just weeks after “Saturday Night Live China” made its debut — with no overtly political content — its future looks even more doubtful. Viewers who tuned in over the weekend discovered that the show was not available from its host, the Chinese video-streaming platform Youku.

“The site you were searching for has just gone to explore Pluto,” a notice at the show’s Youku page said.

NBCUniversal executives in the United States and Britain could not immediately be reached for comment during China’s business day Tuesday. A customer service agent for Youku, who declined to be identified, said that all episodes of the show had been temporarily removed from Youku pending “a rectification and upgrade of its content.” She added that Youku had removed the episodes at the request of the show’s production team.

“We don’t know when it’s coming back,” she said.

When “Saturday Night Live China” was announced last year, Michael Edelstein, then the president of NBCUniversal International Studios, told the British news outlet Broadcast that the show would be “true to its format with some additional twists to keep it fresh and culturally relevant for the local audience.”

“With Youku as a home, we are confident that ‘SNL China’ will be innovative and entertaining, whilst still being culturally sensitive and respectful,” Edelstein was quoted by Broadcast as saying.

The show, one of several international versions of “Saturday Night Live,” differs from the original in key ways besides language. It isn’t live, for starters, and it doesn’t directly address politics in China or elsewhere.

In the show’s second episode, one skit mocked China’s national soccer team, which did not qualify for the World Cup in Russia. “When the Soviet Union disintegrated, China’s rank dropped by about 20,” a character says of the team. “Then it dropped again when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia broke up. And then there was the breakup of Serbia and Montenegro, and Kosovo.”

Another skit portrayed a matriarchal society where polyandry is common and men are tyrannized by women. “My male compatriots, have you felt you have been bullied and suppressed by females?” a male comedian asks. “Have you noticed that the women in your family are always condescending?” (Answer: “Yes!”)

On Douban, a Chinese social network that focuses on culture, users have given the American version of “Saturday Night Live” a rating of 9.2 out of 10. But the Chinese version’s rating is just 4.9 out of 10, and many viewers have ridiculed it as either not entertaining or else inappropriate for a Chinese context. “My thirst for knowledge urged me to try ‘SNL’ and my survival instinct nudged me to fast-forward through,” one user wrote on Douban, referring to the Chinese version. “There are way too many things to grumble about.”

“'SNL’ is supposed to be a show poking fun at current affairs and politicians, and this is impossible in China,” another Douban user wrote. “Therefore, the show already has a congenital defect, not to mention inferior jokes.”

But other social media users lamented what looked like another casualty of the Chinese government’s censorship of online life.

“Sigh, I feel sad,” a user wrote on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. “I’m not allowed to watch the movies or the reality shows that I like.”

In a notice last week, China’s top media regulator issued guidelines that it said were meant to ensure that TV shows for young people promote “core values of socialism.” The regulator said its goal was to help young people avoid “vulgar and harmful” programs and “enjoy the summer vacation in a clean and regulated cyberspace.”

It was unclear if the disappearance of “SNL China” from Youku was linked to that announcement, much less whether the show fit the regulator’s definition of “vulgar and harmful.” Calls to the regulator — the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television — were not answered Tuesday.

Last month, a person close to the show’s production team told the Chinese news outlet Caixin Global that his two favorite jokes in the first episode had been cut from the edited broadcast. He said the jokes had touched on drugs, childbirth and blind dating — and one of the most politically sensitive subjects in China, Taiwan, the self-governing island that China considers part of its territory. His account could not be independently verified. Chinese streaming services like Youku have a financial incentive to expand their online offerings.

In a 2016 report on China’s media and entertainment industries, the London-based consultancy PwC said Chinese advertisers spent $920 million on video ads in 2015 and that the figure was expected to more than double within five years. It said streaming services like Youku were competing for advertising revenue partly by buying rights to show American movies and other online entertainment.

“Looking ahead, success might well be dictated by which online streaming service can negotiate the best deals with the American studios,” the report said.

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