Regulating China's booming micro-drama industry offers development model for world
Published: Nov 19, 2023 08:08 PM
A netizen views a performance by two web hosts on Douyin, a Chinese short video platform. Photo: IC

A netizen views a performance by two web hosts on Douyin, a Chinese short video platform. Photo: IC

Micro-dramas on online platforms have experienced a rapid growth in the Chinese market over the past two years. Industry predictions estimate that the market value of micro-dramas will approach 25 billion yuan ($3.47 billion) in 2023. 

It's worth noting that micro-dramas are a new global phenomenon, and several Chinese micro-drama platforms have been expanding overseas, achieving noteworthy success. For instance, Reelshort, a Chinese micro-drama app, surpassed TikTok to claim the top spot on the US iOS entertainment chart for a few days in November. This platform is gaining popularity among foreign audiences with a variety of stories that Chinese audiences have already started to experience content fatigue, such as topics like "love after marriage" and "family feuds among the wealthy."

However, as this burgeoning market sees unbridled growth, it is grappling with issues such as explicit content, violence and vulgarity, prompting a crucial need for regulation. 

To cope with these unhealthy issues, major short-video platforms like Douyin (China's version of TikTok), Kuaishou and WeChat announced concrete measures to crack down on non-compliant and low-quality micro-dramas. Douyin, on Thursday, revealed that it had taken down 119 non-compliant micro-dramas within a short period and penalized 1,188 accounts involved in the improper promotion of micro-dramas. Kuaishou, on Tuesday, also announced a targeted initiative against non-compliant micro-dramas, removing more than 10 such productions and imposing penalties on 13 accounts based on the severity of their violations.

These actions are in response to a recent notice issued by the China's National Radio and Television Administration, initiating a one-month special rectification campaign for online micro-dramas. 

Micro-dramas, typically played on mini-programs or social platforms, are brief, lasting only a few minutes per episode, often ending with a cliffhanger or twist. The first few episodes are usually free to attract viewers, while as the storyline unfolds later episodes usually adopt a pay-per-view model.

Examining industry growth, micro-dramas indeed are enjoying a golden period of rapid expansion. Statistics from a professional team with the Communication University of China reveal a significant increase in the number of micro-drama releases on five major domestic video platforms, from 276 micro-dramas in 2022 to 298 micro-dramas in the first seven months of 2023, reflecting the industry's robust momentum.

The popularity of micro-dramas stems from their ability to meet people's demand for fragmented entertainment. In today's current fast-paced lifestyle, individuals find it challenging to dedicate extensive time to watching lengthy TV series or movies. Micro-dramas, with their concise and engaging narratives, provide viewers with a quick yet satisfying viewing experience. Moreover, their focus on the lives and emotions of ordinary people makes them relatable, fostering a sense of connection among audiences.

However, the success of micro-dramas also reveals several issues, notably content violations and distorted values. Some micro-dramas, in pursuit of clicks and attention, deliberately incorporate explicit, violent, or vulgar content, leading to an unhealthy online audiovisual environment.

Micro-dramas, distinct from traditional TV series, movies, or web series, face challenges in terms of industry positioning, experts said. As a newly popularized mode of communication, some micro-dramas, especially commercial ones, may skirt the edges of compliance. Without proper regulations and limitations, this could lead to more adverse consequences.

The latest seven regulatory measures introduced by NRTA are expected to yield results over time. Addressing issues through measures such as crackdowns on marketing and zombie accounts that disrupt online order, while establishing mechanisms such as a "blacklist" will significantly aid in governance. Meanwhile, encouraging the creation of high-quality micro-dramas with positive themes will help foster a competitive and positive environment.

The fervor for micro-dramas indicates that the companies in the industry have found a relatively suitable path for growth. Introducing detailed review guidelines and establishing a "blacklist" mechanism will not only promptly address negative content and restrain unscrupulous companies, but will also regulate industry development in China, ensuring the transition of micro-dramas toward high-quality content, increasing market transparency, and guaranteeing the industry's development toward  robust content and cultural consumer goods that support sustainable growth for industry players. This also provides a model for the healthy development of burgeoning micro-drama markets around the world.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.