Saturday, May 18, 2024

China Seeks to Bring Micro-Dramas Under Tighter Control

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Rags-to-riches tales, revenge plots, and plenty of twists—Chinese viewers are loving what they can find in internet “micro-dramas,” the latest big thing in Chinese entertainment of vertically-shot shows posted on social media with episodes that have runtimes of just a few minutes or less.

But Chinese authorities, wary of losing control over messaging, aren’t loving the new medium so much—and are cracking down on the booming micro-drama industry.

Unlike legacy television productions with longer production schedules and larger budgets—and strict government oversight—the micro-drama industry has risen through the proliferation of low-budget, quickly made mini-shows that often cost only a fraction of the time and money to put in front of viewers, and until recently, were largely unregulated.

Not known for award- or acclaim-worthy scripts or acting but rather for their pure bingeworthiness, micro-dramas tend to lean into familiar tried-and-tested themes, like love affairs, family disputes, and tensions between the rich and poor.

Read More: China’s Solution to Inequality? Cracking Down on Displays of Wealth and Poverty

“They’re not looking for the quality of their drama,” Oscar Zhou, a lecturer at the University of Kent who is researching the topic, tells TIME of micro-drama makers. “It’s a very profit-oriented production model.”

Yet, despite the low production value, the audiences these micro-dramas receive are massive and the financial returns practically immediate. Put out on platforms like Douyin, Bilibili, Kuaishou, and QQ, many micro-dramas require small-dollar subscriptions to follow, and viewers have proven willing to shell out for them. Last year, Kuaishou had around 270 million daily active users watching micro-dramas—over 94 million of them paid users. And a 2023 show launched on WeChat earned some 100 million yuan (around $19 million) in revenue in just eight days.

In just five years, the domestic market size of the micro-drama industry has reached 70% of the scale of China’s century-old film industry, at around 38 billion yuan (around $5 billion) in 2023, according to Chinese financial newspaper Securities Times, and projected to grow to $14 billion by 2027.

These micro-dramas are reaching American viewers, too. ReelShort, a Chinese app that streams them and that was launched in the U.S. in 2022, was at one point in 2023 the top app downloaded on the Apple App Store, surpassing TikTok. On Google’s app store, it has more than 10 million downloads.

But the very intriguing tropes that keep viewers glued to their screens, especially content that highlights negative aspects of family life, are also what keep censors up at night.

Over the course of just over a year, the industry has transformed from one of the most free forms of expression in China to one of the most heavily regulated.

Between the end of 2022 and February 2023, China’s Radio and Television Administration took down some 25,300 shows for their alleged “pornographic” and “vulgar” content, state-run CCTV News reported. And in December 2023, the Communist Party’s Cyberspace Affairs Office issued guidelines on short-video content, barring display of pornographic or violent behavior, incitement of ethnic and regional discrimination, and spread of “wrong views on marriage and love.” Starting June 1, the government will require all micro-dramas to have a license before they can be distributed online.

Many of the platforms also began self-policing to ensure continuity in operations. In recent months, Douyin and Kuaishou have taken down several micro-drama titles for “bad values” and other illegal content. Earlier this month, Douyin announced that it took down six micro-dramas because they “deliberately amplified and exaggerated content such as conflicts between husband and wife, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.” On the same day, Kuaishou took down four titles and more than 700 related content, echoing some of the reasons from Douyin, adding that the titles were found to be “deviating from the mainstream value orientation of society.”

The Xi Jinping administration has repeatedly promoted the preservation of family values as a way to boost languishing birth rates. Young citizens have cited a multitude of factors as to why they don’t want to marry or have kids, including predominantly economic concerns, but in an October 2023 speech before the All-China Women’s Federation, Xi said: “It is necessary to tell good family tradition stories, guide women to play their unique role in carrying forward the traditional virtues of the Chinese nation, establish good family traditions, and create a new trend of family civilization.”

Read More: China Is Desperate to Boost Its Low Birth Rates. It May Have to Accept the New Normal

To that end, the government seems to recognize the appeal of micro-dramas as a potential tool to harness, not just a problem to constrict. In January, state regulators launched a plan to integrate cultural and tourism promotions into as many as 100 micro-dramas this year, as towns that have been featured in micro-dramas have seen boosts in visitors. “The government won’t just shut down the whole genre, because it could be an opportunity for them to do something more creative,” says Zhou. “Ideological work,” he calls it.

Zhou doesn’t believe the new restrictions will turn off producers of micro-dramas, who are clearly more interested in profit than principle, he says. “This is always a negotiable space,” he says of the Chinese entertainment industry. “If they want to censor the ‘non-conventional family values’ drama, then the production company can find the next corner.”

But viewers are already expressing displeasure over the latest overt example of the CCP’s efforts to transform culture into control.

In response to the April takedown of several titles, one Weibo user commented: “Film and television dramas are part of culture. If you compare culture to a tree and impose too many restrictions on it, it will only grow into a tree with a crooked neck, let alone ‘cultural confidence.’” (Cultural confidence is a CCP slogan that calls on Chinese people to be proud of their culture.)

“The country wants to control your thoughts,” another user commented, while another asked: “Are you afraid that it will affect the marriage rate because it is too realistic?”

“Like consumers everywhere, most mainstream audiences and consumers of media are going to prefer the lowest common denominator, that is, content produced in their native language, reflecting the country and reality in which they live, and readily accessible on their favorite app or streaming platform,” Michael Berry, director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, tells TIME.

But, he adds, complaints about censorship in China aren’t typically allowed either. And, he believes—cynically, he admits—that over time, Chinese audiences will simply “readjust their expectations per what is permissible.”

—Koh Ewe contributed reporting.

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