Comedian John Oliver Gets Blocked in China

Not everyone can take a joke. Any comedian can tell you that. But some people – and some regimes – are more tolerant of jokes at their expense than others. It’s a lesson political commentator and comedy show host John Oliver knows all too well. He has frequently been roasted by politicians and pundits who don’t appreciate his satire.

Recently, though, Oliver was banned by Weibo, a major Chinese microblogging service, a social media platform similar to Twitter. Why, exactly, did Weibo put the block on Oliver? It happened after the comedian and TV host did a segment on his popular program, Last Week Tonight, slamming China for human rights violations, then doubled down by mocking Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The 20-minute segment may have been red meat for Oliver’s American TV audience, but many in China were not amused. And it’s not surprising, while Oliver is known for hyperbole and satire, his routine pulled no punches in its assessment of Xi’s efforts to consolidate power in his country. Referring to Xi’s administration as a “leadership cult,” Oliver definitely made his opinion known, and felt, in China.

Now, when fans in China try to find “John Oliver” or “Last Week Tonight” they are met with error messages and a disclaimer that reads, in part: “information that violated laws and regulations…”

Chinese fans of Last Week Tonight took to social media to lament the censoring of the comedian and his program, but most stopped well short of asking that the block be lifted.

While this is a single interaction, and it’s fairly certain Oliver isn’t surprised, this situation telegraphs an interesting and hazardous communication puzzle for American brands hoping to get a foothold on the massive and growing Chinese consumer market. While there is certainly a strong market for American products, the mindsets of the government as far as what is or is not allowed puts strictures on American producers, especially in the entertainment field.

While some say the ban is really “no big deal, because HBO doesn’t make much in China anyway,” that attitude is not shared by the majority of the American entertainment media, including HBO. These companies are walking a fine line between creating compelling content and making sure not to overstep in ways that will cross those who determine what can or cannot be distributed in China.

Sometimes, this delicate balance can be lost in translation. While it’s likely that Oliver knew his comments would go over poorly with China’s government, there are many other people at HBO and other networks that are enthusiastically looking for programming they can distribute there without setting off any censors. Finding that balance and divining that line is a work in progress, and communication puzzle American entertainment media is eager to solve.

5WPR CEO Ronn Torossian is the founder of 5W Public Relations.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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