Battle for the small screen [China Daily: Hong Kong Edition]
(China Daily: Hong Kong Edition Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Illustration by Liu Lunan / China Daily
TV drama rattles notions about US politics
Rendezvous with power
Online video websites are shaking up the way people watch the box, and the influx of US television shows and local websites creating their own content means traditional production companies are finding themselves challenged like never before. Han Bingbin reports.
With foreign TV series and entertainment shows as a drawing card, Chinese Internet video websites are trying harder to win over young audiences, prompting concern that traditional TV will eventually be replaced by online videos.
Inspired by the phenomenal success of US TV series like House of Cards, Chinese video websites are shifting their attention to entertainment shows.
Saturday Night Live and The Ellen DeGeneres Show have both had high-profile landings on Sohu.com, arguably China's most recognized video website for airing US TV shows.
The ongoing 11th season of The Ellen DeGeneres Show has been watched more than 20 million times on Sohu.com. Like US TV series, the talk show proves particularly attractive to young people aged between 18 and 35, most of whom are highly educated and hold white-collar jobs.
"Obviously Chinese audiences are becoming increasingly interested in Hollywood pop culture after watching American TV series," says Sohu's executive director of copyright purchasing Ma Ke. "We are trying to enrich our content so that it appeals to as wide an audience as possible."
In the coming years Sohu will increase its investment particularly in licensing American entertainment shows, CEO Charles Zhang told local media. More money will also be spent on securing the rights to screen 100 US TV series from the coming fall season, 20 of which are expected to be exclusive to Sohu.com. The view count of US TV series now takes up one-fifth of the whole website and is expected to continue to grow.
China's other leading online video company, Youku Tudou Inc, on the other hand, brands itself as a Korean entertainment hub, joining hands with South Korea's top TV stations and entertainment companies, such as SBS and CJE&M. This year alone more than 10 high-key South Korean TV series and entertainment shows, plus live concerts and celebrity shows tailor-made for the Chinese market, will be exclusively broadcast on Tudou.com.
China now has 400 million online video viewers, 250 million of whom are watching videos through mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablet computers, according to statistics from entertainment industry research company EntGroup. Thanks to the development of 4G services, the number is expected to grow rapidly in the next couple of years, especially in third- and fourth-tier cities.
With exclusive foreign content as a sure attraction to these potential viewers, video websites are also betting their future on self-made content. With growing investment, the involvement of top professionals and more stimulating subjects - online content is usually only censored by websites themselves - online programs are providing quality entertainment that directly challenges TV stations.
"Compared with licensing exclusive TV programs, producing their own content is still more cost-effective. Websites have absolute control of the content. It's thus easier for future commercial exploitation," says Zhu Wei, analyst with EntGroup.
TV drama rattles notions about US politics
Rendezvous with power
Calling self-made content "a true sign of maturity", Youku Tudou's chief content officer Zhu Xiangyang says that this year the company will invest 300 million yuan ($48 million) in making its own programs.
Sohu will reportedly invest twice as much this year and aims to raise its view counts of self-made content fourfold, which will include full-length TV series and reality shows made by local talents and top South Korean production teams.
One of Sohu's self-made miniseries, Diors Man, now in its third season, parodies pop culture and topical social issues with cheeky humor. It has already been viewed 700 million times, though its production quality is often questioned.
Tencent video and iQiyi.com have also been making some daring bids for viewers, producing ghost-themed miniseries, which cannot be broadcast on TV because of official censorship.
"More than 90 percent of what we see now on video websites is material from TV stations," says Zhu with EntGroup. "As video websites increase self-made content and as their quality continues to mature, traditional TV programs will be no longer be irreplaceable."
But that will take a long time, says Peng Kan, consultant with Beijing-based Legend Media, which specializes in TV industry development strategy consulting.
What some video websites are now planning to invest in self-made content can hardly be called "big moves", Peng says. China's TV industry is booming and high-rating channels are willing to spend as much as 250 million yuan on a single talent show.
TV stations and video websites don't necessarily have to be in a competitive relationship, Peng says. TV stations are expected to adopt more Internet-based thinking by, for example, jointly attracting investment, co-producing programs and sharing audience ratings with video websites.
Some TV stations are already trying to do so. Henan TV co-produced Chinese Character Hero with iQiyi.com, and Jiangsu TV is ready to co-produce a reality show with Tencent video. Unlike in the United States where some TV channels and websites easily share resources as they're under one group, Peng says, State-owned Chinese TV channels and private Internet companies find no easy way to cooperate.
The biggest advantages video websites now enjoy over TV stations are that their content is not subject to the direct examination of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television and neither do they have a quota restriction for purchasing overseas programs.
Some Hollywood distributors thus treat video websites as a new channel to break into the Chinese market, and programs are sometimes sold to China at lower prices than even some Chinese shows, says Peng.
But a change of policy could deprive video websites of these advantages.
The Hollywood Reporter recently reported the administration's policy of "censor first, broadcast later", by citing the administration's online statements that include requiring online content to be examined by qualified personnel who "have been trained by state or provincial Internet video and audio programs industry association". It said the policy "could mean tighter control over online distribution of Hollywood content in China".
But Peng doesn't see restrictive policies coming into force that easily.
He says the supervision of video websites is still a very complicated matter as it involves both State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. The administration wants to supervise the content, says Peng, while the ministry cares more about network flow and is less concerned with content restrictions.
"The administration has long wanted to apply its regulation and management policies on film and television to online videos. But because of the conflict, it has not been successful so far," Peng says.
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