Is China ready for gay TV?

Didier Zheng, host of "Tongxing Xianglian," or "Connecting Homosexuals"

TEXT OF STORY

Scott Jagow: In this country, a lot of young people like reality television. In China, TV has a little too much reality.

China's government isn't exactly the Fox network when it comes to programming. So venture capitalists are pouring millions of dollars into creating Chinese shows for the Internet.

One privately-owned broadcaster in Hong Kong has come up with a new program.It's certainly real, and most definitely, provocative. Jocelyn Ford reports from Beijing.


Jocelyn Ford: In a stuffy makeshift studio on a college campus, the host of China's first gay talk show is excited about making history. But his immediate concern is how to survive the hour-long webcast without air conditioning.

Didier: Nice to meet you.

Ford: You always feel hot?

Didier: Yeah, sure.

Twenty-seven-year-old Didier has a day job teaching French. He comes to the studio once a week for the 12-episode talk show.

Today's topic is about gay love. Didier says he's ready to answer any question — even if it gets private.

Didier: Maybe they will talk about something about my private life.

That's considered radical, because only four years ago, China officially regarded homosexuals as mentally ill.

Most TV stations in China are government-run, and they still don't dare touch homosexuality. But the private Hong Kong company, Phoenix New Media, sees the social outcasts as a marketing opportunity.

Li Ya is marketing director. He casts his talk show as a trailblazer.

Li Ya: We have to do certain shows which is regarded as innovative and pioneering.

So far, the strategy is paying off. Newspapers and magazines have written widely about the new media company's derring-do.

But using controversy to draw viewers online can cut both ways. It could alienate conservative viewers who still watch the company's TV station — and it could alienate the government censors.

Li Ya says he convinced the censors the show would be socially useful, because it addresses AIDS prevention:

Ya: We had some internal debate. We discussed the risk of irritating certain group of people. The traditional value, family value of Chinese society does not accept gay as a viable way of life.

After all, Chinese tradition dictates a good son must have a wife who can bare a male heir. So many homosexuals marry to avoid shaming their parents.

In this episode, Didier is trying to show gay men can also have meaningful personal relationships with other men.

He tells how his former boyfriend proposed eloping to Canada to get married.It's the sort of sensational romance that would attract young viewers. And that's the audience Phoenix New Media is chasing.

There are about 140 million Internet users in China, trailing only after the United States. Most of them are under 30, and most of them go online for entertainment and information before turning to the boob tube.

Media consultant Duncan Clark says Chinese TV censors are inadvertently pushing youth to the Internet because government-controlled TV programs are so dull.

Duncan Clark: Consumers are voting with their hands and clicking onto these sites — as opposed to, you know, waiting for content on TV to become more interesting and compelling.

The problem Phoenix TV shares with U.S. broadcasters is once the audience is on the Internet, how do you make them pay?

Clark: The big challenge of the Internet in China is that people expect everything to be free. The biggest restraint on growth of online video content, available exclusively online, is the business model. Who's gonna pay for the content?

At Phoenix New Media, Li Ya doesn't have the answer. But he says the first step is to generate an audience. His goal: To turn Phoenix into the brand known for edginess.

After homosexuality, Phoenix plans to address Buddhism, which along with other religions is still considered a sensitive subject by Chinese censors.

In Beijing, I'm Jocelyn Ford for Marketplace.

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