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Mini series have sparked a new gold rush in China’s short video scene but tacky plot lines risk regulator ire

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The mini TV series is part of a gold rush for online video producers in China, where a new trend of binge watching very short shows from mobile devices has emerged. However, the sector has been subject to increased regulatory scrutiny, with the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA) in November launching action to review the production, marketing and social values involved in such content.

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Despite these risks, local production companies have been rushing to churn out these mini series – which are typically composed of 100 or more episodes, each about one to five minutes long – under tight timelines and budgets. Filming for an entire series can be completed within a week.

Production budgets are typically low, ranging between 200,000-300,000 yuan, according to Cai Juntao, vice-chairman of Hixi Media Group, a Beijing-based content production company. Online literature company iReader said that it has been able to release between 15 and 18 different shows each month.

Despite the low budgets and rapid-fire release of such shows, Chinese netizens are lapping them up as many of them borrow heavily from themes popular within Chinese literature and culture, helped by aggressive marketing, according to industry experts.

Yan Min, founder of industry consultancy Duanju Insider, said the format has become a savvy means of converting popular online fiction to the screen.

Common themes include a billionaire who falls in love with a house cleaner or a lowly clerk, or a person from an underprivileged background suddenly waking up with superpowers. The often tacky but fast-moving plots, with numerous twists and regular sexual or violent scenes, have quickly grabbed eyeballs.

Screenshots of Chinese mini TV series, which often feature sexual or violent content to keep viewers glued to their smartphones. Photo: Handout

Spending on marketing, which involves buying exposure on short video and social media platforms, can easily climb into the tens of millions of yuan, according to Hixi’s Cai. “[They are] turning the content business into a marketing or traffic-purchasing game,” he said.

Mini series use the “freemium” business model, which offers basic features of a service to users at no cost and charges a premium for supplemental or advanced features.

In this case, clips of the shows are promoted through short video platforms like ByteDance’s Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, and its rival Kuaishou to hook China’s mobile device-obsessed audience, many of whom are from the country’s less affluent segments.

The first 10 or so episodes of the shows are made free to watch, with the remainder requiring a payment to unlock, which can be done for single episodes or for the entire remainder of a season.

A single episode typically costs less than 4 yuan, with many priced around 1 yuan. However, over the course of an entire season, viewers could easily wind up paying 100 yuan a month, nearly the price of a standard Netflix subscription in the US.

That is also much more than a typical streaming subscription in China, where services like Baidu’s iQiyi and Tencent Video charge around 25 yuan per month.

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The gold rush has earned the freshly-minted sector monthly sales of 60 million yuan, a 50 per cent jump in the five months through November, from 40 million yuan in June, according to equities research house CSC Financial.

CSC Financial estimates that the mini series market in China will reach a value of 20 billion to 30 billion yuan this year. By comparison, China’s film industry made 30 billion yuan at the box office in 2022, weighed down by lingering Covid-19 restrictions that shuttered many cinemas.

But regulators are constantly on the lookout for any content that breaches the country’s strict moral and political codes.

The NRTA’s November review of mini series content, production and marketing – which came before Rise of the Dark Lotus aired also established a blacklist system to block inappropriate shows, such as those that contain violence, pornography or vulgar content.

Niu Hui, founder and art director at production studio Red Box based in Xian, capital of northwestern Shaanxi province, said the crackdown could help push the sector to start making higher quality shows.

“The regulatory tightening, along with a more crowded market, has pushed the mini series industry to upscale, with better special effects, content and artistic expression,” he said.

Niu added that in its recent production, Supreme Dragon King, Red Box eschewed cheap special effects and used those commonly seen in online films.



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