Chinese online series continue to win market share over the last five years, rivaling TV shows from abroad

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/18 17:33:40

Promotional material for Day and Night Photo: IC

Promotional material for Burning Ice Photo: IC

Clocking in a staggering 2 billion and 430 million views since their debut in early September, Day and Night and Burning Ice, two of China's most popular online crime dramas, have been applauded by hundreds of thousands of fans and frequently compared to similar US series - which the majority of Chinese audiences rate as high-quality.

Day and Night's 9.1/10 on Chinese review site Douban sits a bit higher than the 8.9/10 held by Netflix's latest crime show Mindhunter, which lists US award-winning director David Fincher as one of its executive producers.

"Out of all Chinese online series so far, Day and Night is closest to the style of US series. Its plot structure, drama, intensity of narratives and abundant use of flashbacks… even its marketing strategy has been following the typical pattern of US series," wrote Sina Weibo user kongfuzidezuzhou.

"The dark and cold atmosphere, the hunt for a murderer and the sub-story featuring a loan shark desperately looking for his account all reminded me of the excitement of watching a series such as Fargo," wrote Douban user Shengun Shaonian.

While previous online series were often small-budget productions featuring inexperienced performers and low-brow stories, a number of "Super online series" - referring to quality online series with budgets over 1 million yuan ($151,000) per episode - that have emerged over the past few years are starting to win back young Chinese viewers who often favor foreign series, especially those from the US, Japan and South Korea.

Improved quality

"From Tientsin Mystic to Day and Night and Burning Ice… they feature professional audio and visual elements, well-written screenplays and brilliant characterization," Xie Fei, a veteran Chinese director and former vice president of the Beijing Film Academy, commented on Douban, explaining why he thinks online series have been gaining ground.

"Online series, free of the constrictions that exist in TV economics, can be any length the producers like and are not restricted to choosing well-known stars when it comes to the cast," wrote Xie.

Starting from the 7-episode sitcom Diors Man, which garnered some 50 million views in its first two weeks after debuting on in 2012, Chinese online series have continued to become increasingly popular in the last five years.

According to a People's Daily report in September, the number of Chinese online streaming platform users reached 565 million in 2016, a 50 percent increase over 2012.

"I remembered everyone around me watching and discussing Diors Man when it debuted," Zeng Yu, a 27-year-old veteran fan of the sitcom, told the Global Times. "I love it since many of the jokes in it are classic examples of Chinese humor, which is probably why it resonated so well with local audiences."

This ability to reflect Chinese culture is one of the key factors that influence Chinese viewers when it comes to choosing their favorite series.

"I found Day and Night interesting probably because of the many impressive Chinese elements in the show," Zhang Wei, a 26-year-old veteran Guangzhou-based drama fan, told the Global Times.

Thanks to milder censorship restrictions compared to what traditional broadcast TV faced, online series experienced a production boom over the past five years, with nearly 1,000 shows produced between 2012-16. These shows cover a wide range of genres, featuring everything from fantasy to crime shows.

According to figures from cultural data platform, the top three most popular genres for online series in 2016 were the romance, comedy and thriller genres.

While streaming TV remained something of a wild west frontier for awhile, this was not to last. Over the past two years, increased government scrutiny has led to a number of productions being removed from streaming sties.

In the opinion of Liu Qing [pseudonym], a 28-year-old Beijing-based writer, this purge had a positive impact on the industry.

"It helped screen out a number of low-quality productions," Liu said. "For instance, [2014 online series] Blind Spot, which was removed in 2016, was a poor quality production full of cliches."

Also raising the bar of quality for online series has been the involvement of big-name film producers and veteran actresses and actors, such as award-winning mainland director Guan Hu and Golden Horse-winning actor Qin Hao, who plays the main character Yan Liang in Burning Ice.

Aside from improved acting and cinematography, the addition of well-written screenplays, more sophisticated plots and better characterization have also been key factors that have ensured an online series success. 

"I found the writing in Burning Ice and Day and Night far more concise and less awkward than the cliche writing I see from time to time in some domestic TV dramas," said Liu.

"You also see a more human focus. The characters in the two series also have complex personalities that are based on their previous experiences," she noted.

Chinese viewers' increasing unwillingness to watch poorly made productions has also been a driving force pushing producers to raise production standards.

"Audience demands are rising…We have to continue to make progress to catch up with them so that following seasons will appear to the audience to have stayed at the same level as the first season," said Yuan Yumei, producer of Day and Night, in an interview with the National Business Daily when talking about the making of the series' season two on October 12.

"Day and Night has ignited my passion for domestic dramas," said Zhang, who said that US and South Korean series used to account for 90 percent of the shows she watched.

"But now I'm watching far more domestic dramas."

Newspaper headline: A new contender

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