Why It Matters That Ellen is the First U.S. Talk Show in China

Show may be a spark for change in attitudes toward LGBT Chinese

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In a press release issued yesterday evening, and in the clip shown above, The Ellen DeGeneres Show broke new ground for an American daytime talk show, with the announcement that it would be the first show of its kind available for Chinese viewers. The deal — between Warner Bros. International Television Distribution, the show’s distributor (and part of TimeWarner, TIME’s parent company), and Sohu, a Chinese online-video provider — means episodes of Ellen will be provided for this new audience within two days of their original U.S. broadcast.

“It’s basically the same show, but it’ll have subtitles and it’ll be called The Happy Lady Dance Hour,” DeGeneres explains to viewers, jokingly, before urging her billion new viewers to buy her merchandise.

The press release makes clear why Ellen is a no-brainer for Sohu’s audience. Its friendly, upbeat content makes it the perfect choice for breaking into the Chinese market, explains Warner Bros. TV’s Jeffrey R. Schlesinger:

Ellen has clearly differentiated herself and her talk show from so many of the controversial conflict-oriented talk shows as it has become an increasingly positive alternative in daytime featuring the biggest stars from worlds of film, television and music… She has an unmatched and unique brand of family-friendly humor and love of pop culture that appeal to audiences of all ages in a very fun one-hour of programming.

Which is all true — being fun is pretty much the hallmark of the show. But DeGeneres, particularly when it comes to her personal life, is equally as known for speaking up as she is for having a good time. For example, when an anti-gay group advocated in 2012 for JCPenney to fire her as their spokesperson, she addressed the conflict on-air. In less weighty moments, her  relationship with wife Portia de Rossi is frequent fodder for the show. And that openness makes Ellen matter — especially since a spokesperson from Sohu tells TIME in an email that, “as far as I know,” Ellen will not be edited for the Chinese audience, beyond the addition of the subtitles. (Warner Bros. did not yet respond to requests about the same question.)

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According to a 2010 report from the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the matter of homosexuality in China remains largely in the shadows; homosexuality has been decriminalized there since 1997 and is no longer officially considered a mental disorder, but neither are gay people protected by law. “The legal status and position of homosexuality in China bears the hallmarks of a subject which has been little considered within official Chinese governmental circles,” the organization notes. But, when it comes to the media, there appears to be more consideration. The report continues:

Laws and regulations continue to place broad restrictions on the diffusion of LGBT-related content across all sections of the media. Laws and regulations continue to define homosexuality as ‘abnormal’ and fail to differentiate between sexually explicit and non-explicit LGBT content in broadcasts, television programmes and films. The internet provides the most open forum in which LGBT content can be accessed.

More recently, in an interview with The Atlantic last August, an anonymous Chinese researcher who studies LGBT rights noted that the Internet’s role continues to be crucial; LGBT-focused organizations in China are using video to help expose mainstream Chinese audiences to the personal stories of gay Chinese people. (Online dating for gay people is also huge, she notes.)  Though the state media doesn’t ignore same-sex relationships, the researcher gives more credit to NGOs and the Internet (where Ellen will be available) for changing attitudes. But despite rapid changes and broadening acceptance — as evidenced by events like this December’s public gay and lesbian kiss-a-thon in Shanghai — the Atlantic‘s anonymous interviewee makes it clear that being gay in China is still no walk in the park. In many fields, coming out would be the end of your career, she claims, and many officials believe that LGBT issues are not relevant to Chinese society. A June 2013 Pew poll found that 57% of Chinese respondents say that “homosexuality should not be accepted by society.”

Which is why Ellen on Sohu could be more than just a talk show. By the time the show came on in the U.S., its host’s sexuality had already been dissected and discussed (including on the cover of TIME). But years earlier, just a few months after DeGeneres’ sitcom went off the air in 1998, Will & Grace debuted. The show is now often credited with actually affecting mainstream attitudes and public policy. If Ellen is a hit in China (in the U.S., it’s still setting ratings records in its 11th season) and if Ellen really does get shown on Sohu intact, “Ellen and Portia go hiking” and all, it could have an impact beyond its viewership — and that’s something we’re betting would make the “happy lady” of the “happy lady dance hour” even happier.