BEIJING — Johnny Galecki recently came to Beijing to rub elbows with Chinese fans of his nerdy TV comedy, "The Big Bang Theory." The 38-year-old actor signed autographs, was serenaded by a harpist and drank tea on a talk show interview streamed on Sohu.com.
The Chinese Internet portal streams the Warner Bros.-produced show, and it has become a phenomenal success. In fact, as of April, episodes of the hit show have been streamed 1.4 billion times. And Sohu's chief executive, Charles Zhang, treated Galecki like a star on the promotional visit.
So it was a shock to Chinese fans this weekend when all seven seasons of "Big Bang" suddenly vanished from Sohu. Viewers were greeted with a cryptic message: "Sorry, the episode is not available at the moment due to policy reasons."
By Monday, that had changed simply to "This page cannot be found." And that has major U.S. studios worried.
China is a crucial market for Hollywood to sell its content. The nation is the No. 1 international box office, accounting for $3.6 billion in ticket sales in 2013, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America.
The television market there is much smaller but growing, especially as new digital platforms emerge and are hungry for content. The MPAA's international arm said the major Hollywood television production companies received $42 million in licensing and distribution fees from China in 2012, the most recent figures available.
In addition to "The Big Bang Theory," three other licensed American shows — "The Good Wife," "NCIS" and "The Practice" — disappeared from major Chinese video portals. There has been no official explanation for the shows' being pulled down.
Speculation centered on the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television as having issued the takedown orders without explanation. Last month, the bureau issued a notice about the need to "reinforce" monitoring of unacceptable erotic, political or violent content in online programming.
Fans and industry players alike sensed that there was more to the move than just concerns about edgy themes. They point out that there are many more violent and risque foreign shows, including "Masters of Sex," "American Horror Story" and "The Walking Dead," still freely available for streaming in China.
With online viewership exploding — drawing eyeballs and advertisers away from state-controlled traditional TV, where foreign shows are few and far between — some believe authorities are signaling they want to turn the tide before it's too late.
"Effectively, the quotas or outright bans on foreign content [on traditional TV] created this space for the Internet guys to fill. Now, it's to the point where 'Big Bang Theory' cast members are coming to China and being treated like royalty and the incumbents — CCTV and the traditional broadcasters — are clearly feeling the heat," said Duncan Clark, chairman of BDA China, an investment consultancy in Beijing. "This Internet streaming is eating away massively at market share."
Online video revenue in China jumped 41.9% between 2012 and 2013 to $2.13 billion, according to iResearch Consulting Group, which focuses on the Chinese Internet. By the end of last year, some 460 million unique visitors were using personal computers to watch video in China, and 170 million were using mobile devices — up about 73% in just 12 months.
Portals including Sohu, Youku and Tencent have snatched up scores of foreign TV series in recent years, offering programs such as "Two Broke Girls," "Mad Men" and "Breaking Bad." Sohu has more than 75 U.S. shows, and Youku has about 60.
In a sign of just how attractive these video portals have become, China's online shopping giant Alibaba said Monday it was paying $1.22 billion for a 16.5% stake in Youku Tudou.
The Chinese government cracking down on streaming services could have major consequences for these Internet portals, said Su Jie, an online video market analyst with Analysys International. Already, Sohu's stock traded in New York has been hammered, dropping more than 6% on Monday.
"If there are more restrictions on screening such shows or delaying the shows from being 'live streamed' just after they air in the U.S., the Chinese video websites will lose a lot of viewers," she said. The video websites will "be hurt financially after losing this high-end audience that has a lot of spending power."
U.S. TV producers have long been frustrated by piracy in China. So these online licensing deals have been a heartening breakthrough, offering them revenue streams that previously didn't exist.
The latest dust-up has triggered fear that fresh limits on online licensed streaming or efforts to air censored versions on traditional TV may curb those deals — and drive viewers back to illegal downloads.
What will happen to "Big Bang" and the other shows that were removed is unclear. The business publication Caijing reported Monday that state-run broadcaster CCTV would acquire rights to "The Big Bang Theory" and broadcast a cleaner version, but no deal has been finalized.
CCTV already carries other shows from Warner Bros., including "The Middle."
Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.