The idea that the Chinese government wants ABC to fire Jimmy Kimmel for a segment on his show in which a child suggested that the U.S. government could “kill everyone in China” to settle its sovereign debt seems, at first blush, like a real mismatch between the force being applied to a situation and the magnitude of the incident. Heaven forfend Chinese government officials ever get a glimpse of the pilot of Dads, with its jokes about Chinese parenting, Chinese men’s anatomy, and the idea that “Shanghai” is “a verb for a reason,” and which was written by actual adults and defended by the president of the network which chose to air it. But the revealing thing isn’t just that the Chinese are flexing some muscle on the comments that aired on Kimmel’s show — it’s how ABC is responding, and what it says about the entertainment industry’s reliance on access to the Chinese market.
Deadline notes that:
Heading into the weekend, with protests scheduled around the country, ABC had issued another apology, in Chinese and English, calling the segment an “egregious mistake” that “should never have been broadcast,” but slipped through the cracks when “systems we have in place for these types of things did not function properly.” In its latest apology, ABC promised it had beefed up its Standards & Practices and executive safeguards to prevent something similar from happening again — and killed dead the show’s running Kids Table franchise.
Additionally the company noted, it has done “everything in our power to ensure that the segment receives no further exposure,” editing the skit out of any future broadcast of that episode and taking down the clip from all of its online platforms. In the wake of the reaction to the sketch, Kimmel apologized on-air, in writing, and met with protesters. Today Xinhau News Agency reported, simultaneously, in headlines that “American broadcaster urged to acknowledge misconduct,” in the Kimmel affair, and “ABC confirms to Xinhua it apologized for offensive talk show skit.” CCTV has broadcast video of Kimmel being asked when he met with protesters days after the segment was broadcast, how he would respond to a group of Chinese Americans who were raising money to sue him. “Well, in America, we have the freedom of the press. If they want to waste their money suing me — I’d recommend they don’t do that — but that’s their choice,” Kimmel said in CCTV’s broadcast.
Kimmel’s response is characteristic and entirely appropriate. But it’s contrasted with a rather striking display of deference on behalf of ABC.
That deference might be odd for an independent television network, but for ABC, given its corporate context, the rush to apologize makes perfect sense. Despite a loosening of the restrictions that allow a limited number of foreign films into the Chinese market, rules that are meant to give a boost to the Chinese film industry and to prevent some kind of content from reaching Chinese audiences, American films can still be denied access to Chinese theaters at the last moment. American studios looking to avoid quota restrictions and ease their films’ arrivals into China still have to navigate a complicated co-production process to bring on Chinese partners.
But getting the right movie onto Chinese screens can be exceptionally lucrative, which is why it’s worth it to studios to try to maintain good relationships with a country that hasn’t always been receptive to American filmmakers and their work. Iron Man 3 made $64.5 million in China on its opening week there, which isn’t as much as the $174.1 million it pulled in domestically on its opening weekend, but is surely enough to buy Robert Downey Jr. plenty more flying robot CGI. A movie like the kaiju actioner Pacific Rim may actually be more geared to audiences in Asian countries like China than it is to American filmgoers: that movie made $45.3 million during its first week in China, better than it performed in its American opening weekend.
ABC is owned by Disney, which also happens to own Marvel and Lucasfilm. With the former, it’s developing a long-running and extremely complex series of superhero stories, which spans both multiple movie franchises and, with the addition of four Netflix shows to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on ABC, five television shows. For Marvel, making sure audiences have access to as many of its projects as possible is a matter of both narrative continuity and box office momentum. As Disney prepares to build out the Star Wars universe, that approach seems likely to hold for Episode VII, and for many other projects to come. I’m sure ABC, which suffers from terminally low ratings, is eager not to become the cause of one — or many — of the movies in those cycles not getting access to the Chinese marketplace.
And while I don’t think that Kimmel’s post at ABC is really in any particular danger, the kerfuffle is a reminder that the free speech rights he’s claiming isn’t the same thing as a guarantee of an unfettered platform. Until now, much of China’s influence on the American entertainment industry has been additive: we’re seeing more Asian actors in movies, and more action sequences set in Hong Kong and Shanghai. The Kimmel kerfuffle is a reminder that positive portrayals aren’t the only thing we’re likely to see Chinese officials look for from the American entertainment industry. And while it’s always a good thing to have pressure for more diversity of characters and settings, limiting the things you can say about those characters and setting — even if some of them are ugly — is a step back. The Kimmel controversy isn’t likely to end this hugely complex negotiation. But it is the beginning of a franker public phase of the conversation.