PRC TV Drama Viewership: The Int'l Pecking Order

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 7/22/2013 03:09:00 AM
Popular culture has a way of reflecting preferences and biases, especially when taken from an international perspective. Commercial implications aside, the WSJ's China Real Time blog has an interesting feature on TV drama viewership habits in China, with British dramas such as Downton Abbey gaining an increasingly large audience in the mainland. As in Western nations, certain demographics are more sought after than others. Their measure? The number of threads started on discussion boards per various demographics:
Comparing levels of discussion on different social media sites, a recent study from entertainment research company Entgroup (in Chinese) found that British dramas were catching on among China’s wealthy and well-educated youth. While virtually unknown on the Chinese Internet a few years ago, British dramas now account for more than 9% of foreign TV discussion across Chinese social media sites, compared to around 28% for Korean soap operas, according to the study.

On websites that cater more exclusively to white collar workers and college students, the number for British shows jumps to more than 13%, versus less than 1% for Korean soaps, according to the Entgroup report, which found that more than half of those who followed British dramas held at least a bachelor’s degree.
Using this measure, there appears to be a "snob appeal" phenomenon at work:
That puts British shows at the top an increasingly snobbish pop-cultural hierarchy in China — described by local media as the “disdain chain.” (鄙视链 in Chinese) – in which British drama fans look down on fans of American shows, who themselves look down on Korean soap fans, who in turn look down on fans of domestic dramas.
So we have a viewership hierarchy that goes: Great Britain > United States > South Korea > China.

What determines this hierarchy is certainly up for debate: Is it storyline quality? If you watch some of the Korean dramas, the writing is really superb even if they are not watched so much outside Asian cultures given plotlines that revolve around filial piety alien to Westerners. Is it a historical continuation of an inferiority complex? The British forced China to open its markets and took over Hong Kong besides, while China successfully invaded Korea more than once. Is it production values? American dramas remain the slickest, while Korean ones are not that far behind.

My preferred explanation--and one that is consistent with the logic of snob appeal--is that cultural distance determines this hierarchy. Being steeped in historical periods, British dramas require more background knowledge about others' histories than more readily accessible US/Korean/Chinese fare that typically have contemporary settings. Add the harder-to-understand British accents to the Olde Worlde settings and you have all the ingredients of snob appeal.