Tencent Becomes HBO’s Exclusive Online Distributor In China

Tencent is now HBO’s exclusive online partner in China, the two companies announced today. That means Tencent (which, along with Alibaba and search giant Baidu, is one of China’s largest and most influential Internet companies) will be the only official provider of HBO content through Tencent Video. TV series that will be shown on the online video platform include “Game of Thrones,” “Rome,” “Band of Brothers,” “Boardwalk Empire,” “The Newsroom,” and “True Detective.”

Tencent Video’s agreement with HBO comes after several of its peers and rivals have made major announcements, pointing to the growth of legitimate online entertainment channels in China. According to iResearch China, China’s online video market grew 83.2 percent over the last year to 68.2 billion RMB in Q3 2014, with advertising being the most important producer of revenue.

Last week, Tencent struck a deal with Warner Music Group to distribute songs in mainland China through various online and mobile platforms. Competing streaming video sites iQIYI and Youku-Tudou, meanwhile, both received investment from Xiaomi, which is building a content ecosystem for its mobile devices and smart TVs. Earlier this year, Alibaba and Lions Gates partnered up to stream the movie studio’s titles, including “Divergent” and the “Twilight” series, in China.

SY Lau, president of Tencent’s Online Media Group, said in a statement, “HBO’s award-winning drama series and movies have built up fantastic viewer enthusiasm in China. Bringing this content to a wide audience in an attractive on-demand format will further differentiate our market-leading online video service.”

But exactly how in-demand is HBO’s content in China? The hit show Game of Thrones had a lukewarm reception when it began broadcasting to Chinese audiences earlier this year, but that was became of heavy-handed editing that led some people to complain that China’s censors turned the gore- and sex-filled fantasy epic into a staid “medieval European castle documentary.” But “Game of Thrones” is also the most pirated show in the world, so it would relatively easy to find the original version of the series through torrents.

What Tencent Video can offer viewers, however, is a more convenient and faster way to watch HBO content.

In a statement, HBO president of programming sales Charles Schreger said, “This partnership with Tencent Video ensures that Chinese fans will now be able to enjoy our dramas at the high level of quality they were meant to be experienced.”

But even if Tencent Video’s HBO content does succeed in wooing viewers, like TV broadcasters it is still subject to the whims of government regulators. Earlier this year, four shows that are much more innocuous than most of HBO’s fare—“The Big Bang Theory,” “The Good Wife,” “NCIS” and “The Practice”—were pulled from sites run by Tencent, Sohu, and Youku Tudou. Even though those four shows (especially “The Big Bang Theory”) are relatively benign, their removal may signify the Chinese government’s desire to exert more control over the country’s rapidly-growing streaming video industry.

A Tencent spokesperson told TechCrunch that Tencent still needs to go through the same approval process with regulatory groups as every other company in the industry.

In a more upbeat sign for legal streaming entertainment providers, China’s government is also cracking down on sites that offer pirated overseas TV shows and film. Over the weekend, Shooter.cn, a site that offered subtitled content, was shut down. The Motion Picture Association of America, a trade association, has also launched an anti-piracy campaign in China, signing deals with companies like Shenzhen Xunlei Networking Technologies to remove content by MPAA member companies.