Adam Ash

Your daily entertainment scout. Whatever is happening out there, you'll find the best writing about it in here.

Monday, February 06, 2006

American TV and how it's different in Russia and China

Two interesting articles from the NY Times about American TV and the differences with Russia and China. It'll be quite a while before we can talk of a global culture.

1. It's Like 'Sex and the City,' Only the City Is Moscow -- by SOPHIA KISHKOVSKY

MOSCOW, Dec. 28 - At first glance, it is very much a Slavic "Sex and the City." Four attractive, well-dressed girlfriends meet at chic cafes to kvetch about life, love and sex.

But as much as modern-day Moscow can seem like New York, what with fast-paced lifestyles, pressure-cooker careers and complicated relationships, Vera, Alla, Sonia and Yulia are not quite Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte.

"Balzac Age, or All Men Are Bast ... " (as in bastards; the Russian short form is a common term here), a popular television program whose second season just began, may be a comedy about sex in a big city, but many aspects of the lives of its four female leads might be a bit of a shock to the fabulous quartet from Manhattan.

" 'Sex and the City' is full of the glamour, chic, splendor and beauty of New York," said Alika Smekhova, who plays Sonia, a widowed gold digger on the prowl for yet another rich, old husband. "Our heroines, like our countrywomen, are deprived of glamour," she added, though Sonia lives in a duplex - luxurious lodgings in this city of unaffordable apartments.

The series, which enjoyed big ratings on the NTV channel in its first season in 2004, has from the beginning been described here as a Russian version of "Sex and the City," though NTV said it had no licensing agreement with HBO, producer of the original.

Vera has a teenage daughter, a product of the Soviet practice of marriage at a very young age. She and Yulia both live with their mothers, as does Vera's boyfriend, Zhan, reflecting the overhang of Communist-era housing shortages and Moscow's sky-high real estate prices.

Yulia, a nymphomaniac who is unemployed, is desperately trying to land a husband since her father, who supported her, has left her mother for a woman younger than Yulia. Vera finds out that Zhan is married to a woman he says he wed fraudulently to provide her with the residence permit needed for even Russian citizens to live in Moscow.

Alla, a high-powered lawyer with a fetish for male strippers and a fear of commitment, has some of Samantha's traits. But Lada Dance, the pop star turned actress who plays her, is equally well aware of what differentiates the series from "Sex and the City" and what unites the two shows.

"It's about our life, about our mentality," she said. "We have our friendship between women. They have theirs. It's different. The only thing is that it turns out that men both here and there are bast ..." she added, using the same Russian shorthand as in the program's title.

At first Sonia enjoys her life as a widow, taking young lovers for pleasure, but when the money runs out, she becomes a call girl to an oligarch who is sick of his Barbie-doll wife. She has sex with him in a dark, empty apartment, without seeing his face, and he begins to confide in her.

Harking back to Dostoyevsky's prostitute with a heart of gold and reflecting the attitude of many Russian women toward their men, Sonia begins to pity her lonely client. In a modern twist, she also confesses to Vera - who is a psychotherapist and, like the Carrie Bradshaw character on "Sex and the City," provides the voice-over for the show - that she has never enjoyed sex so much as this anonymous kind for money.

In the episode that was broadcast Monday, Sonia ends up being driven to drink and, surrounded by empty wine bottles, her face bruised after a drunken fall, is saved by an intervention from her girlfriends, who listen to her lamentations. "I'm 35 and I have neither children nor a husband nor a job," she cries. "It's all over. All that's left is a lonely old age."

Yulia tries to comfort her, then cries when Sonia points out that she is in the same boat. Alla hires male strippers to clean up the apartment, and then all the girlfriends get depressed because they realize that if they were young and desirable, men would clean up for them for nothing.

The hunky strippers in thong underwear washing the dishes and vacuuming the floor gave the bittersweet denouement of the episode a satirical edge. In general, the show's cheery theme music and exaggerated characters and situations underscore its comedic core.

But the series nonetheless reflects contemporary Russian realities. Women, especially in Moscow, have become engines of a growing market economy and are putting off marriage. Yet women over 30 are still often regarded as aging, if not old; even those who have their first child in their late 20's are categorized as coming late to motherhood. Indeed, the show's name, "Balzac Age," refers to Honoré de Balzac's novel "A Woman of Thirty" and is the polite Russian way of referring to a woman who is getting on in years.

These mores have long placed men in a privileged position in relationships. So did the Soviet Union's historical legacy of war, repression and alcoholism, which has left Russia, where men live to an average age of about 59, with an acute shortage of males - many of whom are raised and spoiled by single mothers.

"It is our history," said Maksim Stishov, the scriptwriter and a producer of "Balzac Age." "We have completely different relations between men and women. We have fewer men, many fewer men than women. This affects relations of women with each other and with men."

Dmitry Fiks, the director and co-producer, is even more blunt. "We have infantile men," he said. But he added that the goal of the series was not to roast them mercilessly, but to poke fun at their weaknesses. "We love them and make them funny," he said. "They are very gentle and touching, but all slight imbeciles."

Not unlike the "Sex and the City" stars, the actresses who star in "Balzac Age" have seen their lives splashed across Russia's tabloids and celebrity magazines.

Zhanna Epple, who plays Yulia, recently separated from her common-law husband of nearly two decades; in an interview with a Russian television magazine, she said he could not deal with her success.

Yulia Menshova, who plays the sympathetic, studious Vera, divorced after the series began filming. She was host of a television talk show in the mid-1990's called "I Myself," about women standing up for themselves as Russia was making its rocky transition to a market economy. She said the uncertainty of that transition was reflected in relations between Russian men and women.

"People live well, but they always live in fear that this is the last time they will live like this," Ms. Menshova said. "This creates a psychological pressure that makes people so afraid to let someone into their inner world that even relations between men and women have become some kind of threat."

2. Nick's Cultural Revolution -- by DAVID BARBOZA

SHANGHAI, Dec. 28 - When Nickelodeon's popular "Kids' Choice Awards" program came to China last month, the producers were forced to make some serious modifications. There would be no voting on favorite burp. Nor would children judge which movie character was the best at breaking wind.

There was, however, sliming, a highlight of the American version of the show, which involves dumping, squirting and otherwise propelling green gooey stuff at people. And adults repeatedly were whacked by children - with balloon bats, of course - just to give the Chinese a taste of the freedoms afforded to children in the United States.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the show's national television broadcast was that children in China seemed to think that even this much kinder, gentler version of the program was wonderfully, outrageously transgressive.

"This is just so much fun," said Wang Yinong, a shy 12-year-old girl who watched the show at home with her parents in Shanghai. "I'd really like to go there and do the same thing: slime people."

Sliming remains a novelty in China. While every American industry that comes here faces its own obstacles, the bar that exporters of children's television programming must vault is particularly high: a traditional culture of respect for parents and authority reinforced by decades of Communist discipline and the ruthless competitiveness of an educational system that favors rigor over imagination.

Still, Viacom, which dominates youth-oriented programming in the United States and other parts of the world with its MTV and Nickelodeon networks, is aggressively courting Chinese youngsters, hoping to introduce them to its brand of playfully antiauthoritarian programming. After all, China has roughly 300 million people younger than 14, and Viacom executives warm to the idea of capturing even a sliver of a demographic that now exceeds the population of the entire United States.

"There's no such thing as a global strategy without China," said Bill Roedy, vice chairman of MTV Networks and a prime mover behind Viacom's international planning.

Viacom already has a 24-hour MTV channel in southern Guangdong province. China Central Television and the Shanghai Media Group broadcast Nickelodeon's "Wild Thornberries" and "CatDog" cartoons. "SpongeBob SquarePants" is due to premiere here next month.

But with television programming in China entirely state-controlled, Western media companies must negotiate every nuance of programming. And experts say that parents here may be even more restrictive than the government, viewing American-style television as too unruly.

"It wouldn't be surprising if the government said no to programs like these," says Lei Weizhen, who teaches about television at People's University in Beijing. "The public may question whether or not these shows are good for Chinese children."

In the cutthroat competition of contemporary Chinese society, parents invest heavily in what is often their only child. Urban children especially may attend school from 7 a.m. till 4 p.m., followed by hours of homework, music lessons and other enrichment courses. Deviating from this rigorous program is not encouraged.

"We don't allow him to watch too much TV," Qiu Yi, a 41-year-old advertising salesman in Shanghai, said of his 11-year-old son. "I'm not against cartoons. But I try to encourage him to watch documentaries on dinosaurs and the Second World War. These programs are useful to his study."

What's on television in China seems to be not all too dissimilar from what's happening in the classroom. Youth programming in China tends to be dry, conservative and pedantic. It consists mostly of quiz shows, team competitions and endless lineups of youngsters, dressed uniformly, standing at attention and answering questions like Boy and Girl Scouts.

Indeed, in a society where authorities worry about a little anarchy quickly getting out of hand, there are no rock fashion shows, no "Wild 'N Out" or "Homewrecker," no Chinese-made "SpongeBob SquarePants" and certainly no Chinese equivalent of "Beavis and Butt-Head."

"The children would probably love these shows, but the parents may find them hard to accept," said Xie Limin, a vice dean at the Shanghai Normal School. "Traditional Chinese culture requires children to behave in every moment of their life."

The names of children's programs here often reveal their content: "Seeking Answers to 100 Questions," "Reading Books," "Visiting Schools," "Chess Boy" and "Studying the Arts."

"The Big Windmill," a nationally broadcast program on China Central Television, recently featured a typical skit. It involved a couple of people who opened a new hotel and then overcharged travelers for their stay. Two of these travelers turned out to be government investigators, looking into just such crimes. The message of this show, which is intended for children 3 to 14? "Don't lie or cheat customers! And beware of undercover authorities!"

But even some educators and parents say that Chinese television's striving for the didactic skews too far to the dull and unimaginative, which is why some families buy pirated DVD's of popular Japanese cartoons.

It is also why Viacom and other media giants are betting that China will change and develop a taste for some of the same hyperactive programs that are so attractive to young people in the United States, Europe and other parts of the world.

"A lot of children's programming is really bad in China," said Li Yifei, managing director of MTV Networks China and considered one of the most powerful women in Chinese television. "It's condescending and more about lecturing to children. Fun - that's what's desperately needed."

And experts here note that many Chinese children are already well plugged into global entertainment: They carry cellphones, download music on their MP3's, sometimes dye their hair blond and even, on occasion, wear baggy pants and talk in their own hip-hop way.

"In terms of their appearance, I don't think you can tell a Chinese kid from a Western kid anymore," said Hung Huang, chief executive of China Interactive Media Group, a media and publishing company in Beijing and a longtime observer of youth trends. "They've got that whole hip-hop look. They listen to Linkin Park, Eminem and 50 Cent. But they probably identify a little more with Japanese and Korean kids, who grow up with the same pressures to conform and succeed."

"The Kids' Choice Honors," as the program was called here, was an early step in establishing a Nickelodeon presence in China, though the government forbade the use of the Nickelodeon logo, which is ubiquitous in the network's programming elsewhere.

There were other compromises as well. The show's producers felt compelled to tone down the program, eliminating not just onstage burping and flatulence but also appearances by male celebrities dressed up as women. When the show was taped in Beijing, the children in the audience cheered loudly and waved banners. But they voted for their favorite scientist, rather than a favorite movie star. And their Chinese pop idols mostly sang saccharine lyrics to an audience better described as adoring than raucous.

Viacom executives say China is simply not ready for certain things. A Green Day video was banned because of provocative images of the United States Army. "Hung Up," a recent Madonna video, "got some protests from older age group viewers, saying it is too vulgar," Ms. Li said.

"Maybe the audience tolerance is much lower," said Ms. Li. "They haven't seen as much."


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