Market Insight

China: threat to foreign programming as online services are dealt new regulation

January 27, 2015  | Subscribers Only

Kia Ling Teoh Kia Ling Teoh Senior Research Analyst, Advertising and Television Media

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Scrutiny of China’s online streaming portals has increased, resulting in new censorship measures for major US TV series. The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), in addition to the existing guidelines, has published a notice demanding that online video providers such as Tencent, Alibaba, Youku Tudou, Baidu's iQiyi and Sohu submit complete seasons of foreign shows (instead of individual episodes) with Chinese subtitles to the censorship board before they go on air. They are also obliged to provide information on acquisition details, synopsis, country of origin and number of episodes.

US TV series Agent Carter and Empire have recently been taken down from the screen for failure to submit full seasons of programming to SAPPRFT for approval prior to airing. The crackdown also targets licensed and regional content. Shameless, which was licensed and had been showing since 2014, was removed from the streaming sites for containing elements deemed sensitive. Likewise, Korean drama Pinocchio which is currently showing on Youku Tudou is facing the risk of getting censored.

Our analysis

China’s key players in online video are currently placed in an unstable business environment while the SAPPRFT develops standards for online content delivery. Some are caught off guard by the unexpected order, causing them heavy losses in wastage of content they have already acquired. Lack of transparency is a further challenge for the businesses: The Big Bang Theory was censored in April 2014 for unknown reasons.

Meeting the new regulations will lengthen the average window between the original US and local Chinese airing of programming. In China, most of the online streaming websites release shows on a weekly basis, as opposed to Netflix’s binge-watching model which releases shows in full seasons. The regulatory delay combined with the episode-by-episode release model could drive piracy: impatient avid followers may resort to pirated DVD and BitTorrent sources for up-to-date content.

In response to the crackdown, online video websites are expected to reconsider their content offer and business model. Businesses are expected to minimize foreign show acquisition for now and shift their investment focus more towards originations. Youku Tudou, Sohu and Tencent have already started to re-release popular classic shows. Meanwhile, Youku Tudou has also revealed plans to develop homegrown English language dramas and talk shows in collaboration with US and European entertainment companies. Local audiences’ favorable appetite for international shows and the stringent control of foreign content could prompt international producers to consider creating content locally to counter the tight censorship of foreign shows.

The online video industry was less regulated until 2014 when the SAPPRFT started to impose a series of controls.  Besides streaming websites themselvs, the regulations have knock-on effects for the sales of set-top boxes. Many Chinese consumers purchase these for the purpose of streaming online content. However, these devices have disabled content from streaming websites since July 2014 as they do not hold a license to broadcast on television screens. 

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