FORTUNE — Before House of Cards’ second season arrived for streaming in China, the show got the type of free publicity that Hollywood producers can only dream of.
A Hong Kong magazine reported that China’s anti-corruption tsar, a member of China’s powerful seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, was a big fan of the Netflix
drama. The tsar was particularly impressed with the main character’s role in ensuring party discipline as Majority Whip in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The story spread like wildfire across China’s social networks Sina Weibo, WeChat, and others. When the show finally became available two months later on Sohu.com, China’s third-largest video content site and a scrappy underdog to Youku and Baidu’s video site, stories in the U.S. press labeled it a huge hit and immensely popular with the Chinese, especially the realistic storyline involving a Sino billionaire fleeing corruption charges and growing diplomatic tensions between China and Japan.
But media hype and popularity are different beasts, and for all the goodwill House of Cards gets in China, viewership numbers don’t tell the story of a mega-hit. The show is like artisanal cheese made in Brooklyn — the influential love it, but that doesn’t make it a phenomenon across the U.S.
According to Sohu’s figures, House of Cards’ second season has 29 million views, which works out to 2.2 million views per episode. For a foreign show with plotlines that are difficult to follow even if you know U.S. Senate procedures, that’s impressive. But a hit? Country Love, a comedy about rural life in China’s northeast, recorded 360 million views in its latest season on Sohu, roughly 6 million per episode.
“The numbers don’t support the argument that House of Cards is super important,” says Jeremy Goldkorn, a consultant in Beijing who tracks Chinese media for his firm Danwei and recently binge watched House of Cards’ new season. He says the show is, however, “popular amongst a demographic that is influential and significant — urban white collars, intellectuals, journalists, and apparently government officials.”
In the U.S., a similar pattern has emerged. The Atlantic’s website threw cold water on the idea of House of Cards being a conventional TV hit. The writer, Derek Thompson, has it right:
“It’s no coincidence that the programs selected to please a small, educated audiences are celebrated by the small, educated TV writers who ignore what everybody else is watching.”
In China, what everybody else is watching is the same kind of easy-to-follow fare that works in the U.S. Although tracking what’s popular here can be tough because China’s government doesn’t allow top 10 lists of movies and television, partly to discourage producers from endlessly copying the most popular shows in lieu of creating new ones, Sohu does release a list of its most popular streaming content. Its top seven TV shows: Diors Man, Village Love, Real Man, Heros of Sui, and Tang Dynasties, The Heroes, The Ladybros, Love of Parents.
All those generate many multiples more viewers than House of Cards, but get little press in the West. Goldkorn says CBS’s Big Bang Theory is the show to compare to House of Cards in China. Both are foreign and widely available. Unlike House of Cards, Big Bang doesn’t get loads of press for its popularity in China. But Big Bang is easily more popular — the latest season alone recorded 115 million views, according to Sohu, or 7 million per episode.
Most of my Chinese friends have at some point mentioned Big Bang to me; I haven’t yet talked about House of Cards. But in the press, you rarely read this. “Big Bang doesn’t seem to push the same buttons,” says Goldkorn.
Writers often equate popularity in Beijing and Shanghai, China’s biggest cities and where many House of Cards viewers live, for popularity in China. It’s an easy error to make. They are the Mainland’s richest cities, but their populations amount to just 3% of the country as a whole. That’s the equivalent of using New York City and half of Chicago to describe America.
You can’t say House of Cards hasn’t piqued interest in the Middle Kingdom. The prospect of a Washington political drama, distributed exclusively online in the U.S., being released simultaneously in China, and gaining millions of viewers in the process, was unfathomable a few years ago. But in China, perception and reality are often different in a country of 1.3 billion consumers.