China loves zombies—specifically, American zombies. AMC’s (AMCX)The Walking Dead is currently the most popular Western television show in the country, racking up more than 250 million views on Youku (YOKU), the Chinese equivalent of YouTube (GOOG). The series’ fourth season, which launched earlier this fall, is already up to 27 million views. That’s much smaller than the show’s American audience—The Walking Dead has been pulling in an astounding 13 million viewers per episode in the U.S.—but its popularity on Youku keeps growing.
American television shows happen to be the fastest-growing category of entertainment on Youku; viewership increased more than fivefold from 2011 to 2012. Earlier this year, Youku added 33 U.S. shows to its line-up, including Glee, Desperate Housewives, and Modern Family. As American programming becomes more popular, the lag time between season premieres has started to shrink, turning China from an entertainment afterthought to a major market. In fact, Netflix’s (NFLX)Orange Is the New Black was uploaded to Youku just 24 hours after its U.S. release. More than 9 million people watched it within the first six weeks.
One thing about The Walking Dead makes it stand out from other Western shows currently available in China: violence. Programs featuring bloody zombie attack scenes are uncommon in China, where the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television often prohibits overly rough or gruesome content. Just last month, the government released new guidelines for children’s programming after several children injured themselves reenacting stunts from a Chinese cartoon called Pleasant Goat and Big, Big Wolf, which features such Wile E. Coyote-style injuries as dynamite explosions and characters hit on the head with frying pans. Even zombies aren’t always safe. Earlier this year, the movie World War Z was banned in China because it was about the undead.
For some reason, The Walking Dead appears to be state-approved. It’s not the only controversial project to make it passed the censors. In May, China allowed Lions Gate (LGF) to release The Hunger Games despite the film’s clear anti-authoritarian message. Variety later reported that a glut of foreign and Internet-based content had caused China’s overworked censors to relax some restrictions, but most of the changes were related to streamlining the censorship process, rather than adopting more tolerant rules.
For now, the logic behind The Walking Dead’s censorship pass remains a mystery. China’s satirical Ministry of Harmony website has its own theories; the Onion-style site recently ran a fake article about how China’s censors were all big Walking Dead fans. (Sample joke: “Whoa! Did you f—— see that s—? Incredible!” [a censor shouted] as the popular character Michonne decapitated a drooling zombie with a katana.”)