By Yuan Yanan
In recent years, Chinese original web series have gained popularity in Southeast Asia. Due to cultural affinity with China, the Southeast Asian market is considered a key destination for Chinese video streaming websites going global.
On June 14, Tencent Video, the online video arm of Chinese internet giant Tencent, launched the video streaming service WeTV in Thailand, the first time the company offered video services to a foreign market. The move marked a significant dip by Tencent into the Southeast Asian market.
“The launch of WeTV in Southeast Asia is just the beginning of our overseas expansion,” declared Jeff Han, senior vice president of Tencent Penguin Pictures. “Unlike in North America where we mainly serve overseas Chinese, now we are directly targeting a foreign audience. This move will lay a solid foundation for the internationalization of Tencent Video.”
Other Chinese online video platforms including iQiyi and Youku have also acted to internationalize, delivering more and more high-quality Chinese video content to Southeast Asia and enabling local users to better understand Chinese culture and society through them.
“Going Global” Industry-wide
As China’s largest and fastest-growing online video platform, Tencent Video had amassed 89 million online subscribers by 2018. The figure is still rising, but its growth rate has finally slowed. Rival iQiyi experienced the same drop, with growth rate of subscribers dropping from 20.27 percent in the second quarter of 2018 to 10.76 percent in the first quarter of this year. Its paid member growth dropped from 19.05 percent to 6.25 percent. The growth of China’s online video industry is slowing sharply. Statistics show that the overall growth rate of online video users declined from 25.5 percent in 2008 to 5.7 percent in 2018.
In this context, exploring the international market seems like the only road to expansion for China’s video sites. Following Tencent Video’s launch of WeTV, iQiyi announced on June 17 that it had reached a strategic cooperation agreement on content distribution with Malaysian satellite television provider Astro. Based on previous cooperation in film distribution, Astro will introduce more video content including web dramas, reality shows and films from iQiyi, which will be distributed in Malaysia through Astro’s platforms. Moreover, Astro will launch a special iQiyi channel to broadcast diverse quality content from the Chinese video site.
Also a leading video platform in China, Youku has also sought internationalization like its peers. Popular films and online drama series offered by Youku such as Day and Night and OCTB have been distributed by Netflix to more than 190 countries and regions around the world. In December 2019, Fox Network Group acquired the format rights of Youku’s reality show Dunk of China . Youku has formulated a clear strategy to spread its quality content globally.
“With the gradual decline of China’s demographic dividends, almost every online video platform is setting its sights on overseas markets,” shrugged Han. “This is a general trend for the future.”
Tencent Video didn’t make the choice of its first stop towards internationalization lightly. “We invested huge amounts of energy in researching different foreign regional markets to figure out their resonance points, aesthetic tastes and viewing habits,” illustrated Han. “Through a comprehensive evaluation of the maturity of internet infrastructure and content industry in our target markets as well as their population bases and cultural and entertainment consumptions, Tencent Video determined that Thailand was a promising overseas market. Moreover, Thailand has cultural affinity with China. These factors convinced Tencent Video to make Thailand the first destination of its internationalized development.”
Internationalization of Tencent Video involves a comprehensive strategy. The company has brought Thailand a holistic internet ecosystem comprised of web portals, music streaming services, mobile payments, games and e-commerce platforms, which will eventually facilitate Tencent’s further expansion to other markets.
Following the launch of WeTV in Thailand, Tencent Video plans to explore other markets including Vietnam and Indonesia. “We have big expectations for the video industry in the international market,” beamed Han. “Currently, a large proportion of content on WeTV is still Chinese exports. But we’re now looking for more diversified content by actively exploring and adding special content for specific local cultures.”
The key to the success of Chinese video sites’ global push is providing quality content for overseas users. In recent years, the continuous improvement of content and production techniques have helped increasing numbers of Chinese web drama series gain popularity in Southeast Asia.
When the web drama series Story of Yanxi Palace produced by iQiyi went viral in 2018, the trend spread beyond China and captivated many Southeast Asian viewers. A pirated version on Vietnam’s video site ZingTV was viewed thousands of times. Shortly thereafter, Legend of Fuyao , an online drama series co-produced by Tencent Video, spread through Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand and landed on major video websites including Youtube, Viki and Dramafever. ABS-CBN, the most influential private media organization in the Philippines, purchased the broadcast rights to A Love So Beautiful . It was the first Chinese modern drama series broadcast on ABS-CBN, where it earned an audience rating of 15.9 percent.
Chinese web drama series Tientsin Mystic, Day and Night and Burning Ice have also found success in overseas markets. All feature attractive plots, solid acting and superb production quality.
A decade ago, Chinese web dramas were primarily produced by individuals as hobbies. Eventually a few enterprises began to invest in low-budget online drama series. Such films and drama series were mainly produced and broadcast by online video platforms. Slowly, China’s video sites became content providers in addition to broadcast platforms.
The year 2014 was a turning point for China’s web dramas. That year, many Chinese video sites announced a big increase in investment in original content, resulting in the release of 44 new series. For this reason, 2014 is considered the “dawn of platform-produced online content” in China.
With the newly available funds, many excellent film and television professionals began to emerge online. Online content quickly shook off the notoriety of amateurishness and started getting rave reviews.
In 2018, iQiyi, Tencent Video and Youku collectively released 214 films and drama series, of which 47 percent were produced in-house. Genres ranged from fantasy, mystery, adventure and family to modern drama, covering every demographic imaginable.
Yuan Yumei, executive producer of Day and Night , has sensed changes in online television in recent years. She admitted that the early web dramas were shoddily produced. “Producers of online video content should embrace a ‘spirit of craftsmanship’ to ensure they go easy on the eyes,” she added. When they made Day and Night , the crew maintained strict quality requirements. “We needed the lively rhythm of American TV dramas and the film look of South Korean TV dramas.”
In just a decade, online series have developed into a booming industry in China. More and more high-quality online dramas are being produced, providing more opportunities for actors.
Although Chinese web dramas are doing well in Southeast Asia, they still face fierce competition from American, Japanese and South Korean counterparts in the market. How can China’s producers stand out in market competition? Perhaps they can learn from successes in Southeast Asia.
As early as the 1990s, the Chinese classical TV series Romance of the Three Kingdoms aired in Southeast Asian countries like Thailand and Myanmar and gained a healthy following. Considering its rich plot, numerous characters and lengthy running time, Thai TV 3 broke convention to arrange a preview commentary program before broadcasting the series.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms became a successful case for Chinese TV dramas entering the Southeast Asian market. Professor Li Fabao from the School of Chinese Language and Literature of South China Normal University noted that cultural affinity is the prerequisite for effective dissemination of Chinese TV dramas in Southeast Asia. As a classical novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms was introduced to Thailand more than 100 years ago, and some chapters have been included into textbooks in many Thai schools. It was easier for Thai viewers to understand the content of the TV show and avoid a cultural disconnect.
Cultural barriers can cause difficulties in mutual understanding, which is a major reason Chinese TV dramas haven’t succeeded in overseas markets. For instance, the Chinese TV drama series Empresses in the Palace , which was a major hit in China, never gained traction when it was introduced to the Southeast Asian market despite great expectations. A Thai TV station canceled it after only a few episodes. According to Professor Li, the Southeast Asian audience could not understand or develop any interest in court conflicts of ancient China.
To succeed in Southeast Asia, Chinese TV must resonate with the local audience. Continual creativity, professional production and overseas operational capacities are key factors for Chinese video products to explore the international market. Popular Chinese reality TV show Where Are We Going, Dad? failed to impress when it was broadcast in Singapore. “The TV show heavily leans on China’s unique cultural phenomena such as the one-child policy, which led to a lack of emotional resonance with the SoutheastAsian audience,” reported investor Li Yifeng.
To better serve the Southeast Asian market, Chinese video producers must conduct thorough surveys of the cultural values and expressive methods of target markets and understand local audience’s aesthetical psychology and cultural preferences. To get closer to the Southeast Asian audience, some industry insiders suggest that Chinese TV and variety shows explore a new model featuring international co-production and joint development and broadcasting. With the increasing maturity of the industry, international coproduction may become a trend for future development of online television.