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UPDATED: March 1, 2014 NO. 26 JUNE 28, 2012
Finding 'Friends'
American television shows find a devoted Internet audience in China
By Tang Yuankai

A scene from Wo Ai Wo Jia (I Love My Family), a Chinese sitcom (CFP)

A scene from American TV show Desperate Housewives (CFP)

"It is the end of an era!" many Chinese netizens exclaimed after the four heroines of the ABC network's hit TV series Desperate Housewives bid farewell to audiences on May 14. One week later, Fox network's medical drama House M.D. also came to an end.

When American viewers said goodbye to the two popular TV series after eight seasons, fans shared their loss more than 10,000 km away in China, where millions tuned in online to watch the emotional finales. After the final episodes of Desperate Housewives were aired on May 14, Chinese netizens posted over 1 million messages paying tribute to the show on micro-blogging sites.

American shows like House M.D. and Desperate Housewives are not aired on Chinese television, but are instead watched by a growing number of young people on the Internet.

Fan favorites

"I still remember the Desperate Housewives scene that our teacher showed to us during an English class at college. Eight years are a long time, and along with the show, we gradually grew mature," said Xia Xiaonuan, a devoted fan of Desperate Housewives, on her micro-blog.

"The show has accompanied me like a friend since I was a girl," said Xu Duoduo, a 25-year-old mother living in Beijing who was also a loyal viewer of the TV series. As the show's four housewives underwent various plot twists and turns, such as murder, illness, divorce and remarriage, Xu grew from a girl to a mother. Many like her have matured and changed to the backdrop of popular television dramas.

For the Chinese audience, American TV shows have played an increasingly important role in their entertainment lives.

"In addition to the clever plot twists, American TV series impress me with rich knowledge and expertise," said Wang Fan, a 28-year-old audience from Chongqing Municipality.

After watching Lie to Me, a popular crime series where detectives solve criminal cases by scrutinizing suspects' facial "micro-expressions," Wang began observing people's facial cues more closely.

"It is amazing that American screenwriters and directors could make an entertaining program so professional," said Wang.

Chinese audiences first started watching American TV series in large numbers in the 1980s. In 1980, China Central Television (CCTV) broadcast The Man From Atlantis. The short-lived science fiction show, though flat by today's standards, immediately swept China. After years of isolation from the outside world, the people were eager to learn more about the West. The broadcast became a landmark event in China's long process of reform and opening up.

At that time, many households didn't own televisions, and few domestic TV series were on the air. In 1979, the Central Government encouraged all local TV stations to produce TV series to spur demand. Any television station that could air 12 episodes a year was even given an award.

For the Chinese audience of the early 1980s, The Man From Atlantis was fresh and exciting. Many lines became common slang phrases among young viewers. Even the sunglasses worn by the hero, Mark Harris, became a stylish must-have accessory popularly referred to then as "Mark glasses." His swimming style was widely adopted. The TV series also inadvertently introduced a new sport to China—playing Frisbee.

The people's humor

Roger Christiansen, director of the international hit comedy show Friends, came to Beijing and Shanghai again in May of this year. And again, Chinese fans warmly welcomed him.

Friends attracted a devoted following in China during its 10-season run, and has not been forgotten since the series drew to a close in 2004.

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