Successful US TV series have long been a major source of inspiration for their Chinese counterparts.
Many Chinese TV producers have taken delight in reproducing these screen hits by adapting their characters into a Chinese context.
For years, Chinese TV viewers have remained tolerant toward what they call “shanzhai productions”. Yet very recently they have become irritated to find one local ratings champion is directly ripping off scripts and plots.
The target of criticism is Ipartment, a sitcom that deals with the hilarious happenings between occupants of two neighboring apartments of a tower block in downtown Shanghai. Soon after its third season premiered, an angry netizen posted screenshots on Tianya.cn, one of the country’s most popular online forums, claiming it has almost identical scenes from popular US sitcoms like Friends.
In the meantime, 22-year-old Zhang Yan, a die-hard fan of Western soaps from Zhengzhou in Henan province, established cpartment.com, where he and other netizens post screenshots after each new episode comparing it to US sitcoms to demonstrate possible plagiarism.
TV series: Copying shows could ‘ruin market’
According to Zhang, at least 16 of the sitcom’s 24 episodes have more than 70 percent of their plot directly copied from seven Western serials including How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory and IT Crowd. Zhang said some of the dialogue is directly ripped from the Chinese subtitles of these series.
Zhang even predicted the show’s upcoming storylines using his knowledge of Western sitcoms, and to his surprise he was correct four out of four times. With an average of 3,000 to 4,000 clicks every day, the website has caused many netizens to denounce and boycott the show.
“I don’t mean to ruin Ipartment. I just want to put pressure on some Chinese directors and scriptwriters. I hope they stop copying,” he says.
Wang Yuan, Ipartment’s scriptwriter, admitted on Sina Weibo that he’s a die-hard fan of American sitcoms and that he tries to progress and innovate through imitation. He would be glad, he wrote, if he could emulate one-tenth of what they are doing right. Later, in an interview with Sina.com, Wang said he has used American sitcoms’ narrative rhythms, classic story arcs and jokes as a reference.
But a representative for the show surnamed Cao denied plagiarism while speaking to Southern Metropolis Daily. He said many comedies have similar stereotypical characters such as beautiful women and sharp-tongued men, and jokes have types as well. He said it’s not plagiarism but a homage to US sitcoms.
Despite the dispute, the show has still won many fans. In one of the largest online forums for Ipartment fans, more than 124,000 registered members, mostly teenagers, have actively shown their love for the show by posting pictures and comments daily. One forum master, a 15-year-old middle school student surnamed Zhou from Shanghai, said she rarely watches American soaps and insists those who really like Ipartment won’t care about the copycat thing.
But from the professional view of veteran scriptwriter Liu Hua, the copycat phenomenon could “ruin the whole market”. It leaves fewer chances to hardworking writers who spend years creating high-quality work, he said, because producers tend to choose quick writers who can finish a script in a couple of months.
But the depressing fact is that there are still “many copycat cases” nowadays. As TV stations want big-budget productions, production companies often take the risk of spending tens of millions of yuan making a TV series. But if they fail to sell it, Liu said, a medium-sized company could go bankrupt. So companies tend to use safe subjects such as remaking foreign series.
Years ago, Liu was approached by a producer who asked him to write a Chinese version of Desperate Housewives. It was suggested to Liu that he could use some of the original scripts. As an established scriptwriter, Liu thought it was “a huge shame” and rejected the offer. But for start-up writers worrying about making a living, Liu said he understands they have few options.
The reason that plagiarism hasn’t come to a stop, in Liu’s opinion, is because “such action hasn’t received any punishment so far”. But he’s glad that because of the power of the Internet the situation may improve.
More importantly, Liu said, netizens’ growing discontent with plagiarized TV shows is also drawing attention from broadcasting supervisors.
“This is the power of the Internet. People all have a broad view, and you can’t possibly cheat on anything,” he said.