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'South Park' popularity is soaring in Taiwan

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TAIPEI, Taiwan - They're just as foulmouthed, politically incorrect and crudely drawn here as they are back in the United States.

And just as in the United States, that's precisely the appeal of those fish-eyed cartoon kids of TV's "South Park," whose off-color jokes and antics - translated into Mandarin Chinese - have become a surprise hit here among Taiwan's latte-sipping, cynicism-dripping youth.

The program's success - it easily wins its time slot late Saturdays - has been a boost for Hong Kong-based StarTV, the Rupert Murdoch-owned cable network that last year bought the rights to air "South Park" in Taiwan.

"We were looking for a way to add a weekly stunt to our schedule to attract a different kind of viewer," said Steve Askew, StarTV's executive vice president of programming.

Rather than a straight translation, the show's three writers have adapted the show to suit the local environment. Inside jokes and American slang have been scrapped. Instead, the episodes allude to Taiwanese pop culture, make bad - and often vulgar - puns in Chinese, play off current events like scandalous crimes and poke fun at Taiwanese politicians.

Even the show's title has been changed slightly to lend it local flavor. The Taiwanese version has been renamed "Nanfang Sijianke," or "South Park's Four Slackers," which in Mandarin also sounds like "The Four Musketeers." (The four are the show's main characters: Cartman, Kenny, Kyle and Stan.)

In some episodes, more than half the dialogue - including lyrics to the many songs - gets rewritten, said producer Michael D.K. Mak. Comic situations are adjusted so that Taiwanese viewers can relate.

For example, in one holiday episode, the Jewish mother in the original who gets upset over a Christmas parade at her son's school becomes an outraged Buddhist in the Taiwanese version, who suggests that her son, Kyle, recite Buddhist scriptures in the campus pageant.

To keep the material fresh and edgy, the show's head writer, Michelle Chen, meets regularly with a group of youths between the ages of 15 and 20 to hear them shoot the breeze, talk about problems with their boyfriends and girlfriends, and throw around slang terms she can use on the show.

For each episode, Chen watches the American version five or six times, then spends hours rewriting and polishing her own take.

Buzz about "South Park" only caught on after the first few episodes had aired. A publicity blitz on MTV, in karaoke clubs and on StarTV's many channels then began paying off.

StarTV executives say their target audience is the 18-and-older crowd. But as has happened in the United States, many fans are much younger than that, prompting questions of appropriateness in light of the profanity and adult content that pepper the show. Some of the show's promotional material seems aimed at young teens rather than young adults.

"Putting it at 11:30 p.m. already shows our responsibility," Mak said.

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