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This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the U.S. print edition of The Wall Street Journal (May 21, 2019).
BEIJING -- Millions of "Game of Thrones" fans soaked up the final episode of HBO's long-running TV series -- except in China, where the premium platform says the last installment got scrubbed due to trade tensions with the U.S.
Chinese viewers expecting to see the finale of the epic series instead saw a notice about "transmission medium problems" on Tencent Video, a division of internet giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. and the exclusive streaming provider of HBO content in China. "We will notify you of another broadcasting time," the video platform said in a longer explanation posted on its Weibo social-media account one hour before the show was scheduled to air.
Angry fans took to Chinese social media over the delay, demanding that their fees -- about 20 yuan ($2.89) a month or 198 yuan ($28.61) a year -- be returned. Some threatened to delete the app and cancel accounts. One user said he had requested a day off from work to watch the last episode. "I specially took a vacation today!" he said.
An HBO spokesman said China restricted Tencent from airing "Game of Thrones" due to the trade dispute with the U.S. The spokesman said HBO didn't experience any trouble with the program's transmission. He referred further queries to Tencent.
A spokesman for Tencent referred to the company's Weibo post and didn't provide further comment.
In the past two weeks, the trade dispute between the U.S. and China has turned acrimonious, and the bitterness has spilled into public view. After the Trump administration accused China of backsliding in negotiations to end the dispute and hiked tariffs on Chinese goods, Beijing has hit back with its own punitive levies and accusations, turning to government-controlled media to amplify its displeasure.
Last week, the movie channel of state-run broadcaster China Central Television abruptly dumped its regular programming and began broadcasting anti-U.S. themed films during prime-time hours. CCTV-6 was originally scheduled to air a red carpet gala, a Chinese sci-fi film, and a Chinese comedy film. Instead, it aired a series of war films portraying Chinese and Korean battle victories over the U.S. in the Korean War. On its social-media account, CCTV-6 confirmed the scheduling changes and said the movies show that Chinese people are "not afraid of strong enemies and can bravely fight."
CCTV-6 didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
Choosing pop culture to register anger with a foreign government is a tactic Beijing has been accused of previously. After the South Korean government agreed to deploy a U.S.-built anti-missile battery over Beijing's objections two years ago, Korean performers and pop stars said their performances in China were scrubbed or blacklisted. Beijing denied explicitly targeting them.
If the trade dispute is confirmed as the reason for the "Game of Thrones" final episode being pulled, "it's a good way to apply some additional pressure outside of the eye-for-an-eye tariffs framework," said Mark Natkin, managing director at Marbridge Consulting in Beijing. "It sends a message that China can also block market access for intangibles like film and TV content, which it can blame ostensibly on content guideline violations."
"Game of Thrones" had been viewed 550 million times on Tencent Video during the most recent season, according to Entgroup, a Chinese entertainment industry data monitoring company based in Beijing.
While Chinese users couldn't watch the last episode from Tencent Video, they still managed to watch pirated versions on other online platforms. Plot points from the last episode were leaked on Weibo, where spoilers from the last episode had reached the top 20 topics on the platform by Monday Beijing time.
American movies and TV shows are popular with Chinese audiences, which are a growing source of revenue for U.S. entertainment companies. Tencent announced a strategic cooperation with HBO in 2014 to be the exclusive provider of HBO content on its online video platform, including "Game of Thrones," "The Newsroom" and "Boardwalk Empire."
In its most recent filing, Tencent Video said its subscriber base had reached 89 million, up 58%, year-over-year.
China's authoritarian government has more stringently policed online content in recent years, and has been increasingly content-sensitive in the runup to several high-profile anniversaries, including the 30th anniversary on June 4 of the military suppression of the Tiananmen Square democracy demonstrations. Wikipedia confirmed this month that all versions of the website in all languages have been blocked in China, not just in Chinese, which has been the case on-and-off since 2004. Wildly popular historical dramas also have been fraught with delays in recent months, as censors try to sort out whether the past is being used to comment on contemporary politics.
--Lekai Liu and Julie Wernau
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 21, 2019 02:47 ET (06:47 GMT)
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