China’s media regulator moved to increase its oversight on TV shows, placing limits on the number of episodes per drama and calling for quality improvements, which could drive significant shifts in the industry.

Why it matters: Video platforms run by tech majors purchase streaming rights for TV shows per episode, which, as a result, have elongated story lines in pursuit of bigger payouts. As a result of the new rules, “Producers will make less money, and will need to improve story lines; audience will see better content, and platforms will need to buy more shows for their audiences,” an entertainment industry insider at Harper’s Bazaar China told TechNode.

  • Many of China’s hit shows, which users watch avidly on platforms like Baidu’s iQiyi, Alibaba’s Youku, and Tencent Video, play out over 60 episodes, with some going over 90. Celebrities net sky-high fees for appearing in dramas which adds to pressure on budgets. 
  • While China’s entertainment industry is both large and profitable, President Xi Jinping has emphasized the need to increase cultural soft power.
  • Those working in the arts, he said, should put social (rather than economic) benefits first, and resist the “vulgar and kitsch.”

Details:  The National Radio and Television Administration set hard limits for length and more rules for how producers spend budgets. The notice publicized Thursday is critical of producers that “rush to shoot without sufficient preparation” and turn out low-quality shows.

  • To promote a “serious and rigorous creative style,” regulators set a limit of 40 episodes for show length, though producers are encouraged to keep within 30 episodes.
  • Producers must submit costs for review, in which actors’ salaries must not exceed 40% of total production cost, and the lead actor’s pay cannot total more than 70% of actors’ salaries.
  • The notice comes into effect from Feb. 6.

Context: Since the outbreak of Covid-19, viewing of online dramas quadrupled compared with the last Spring Festival holiday, with medical dramas becoming more popular.

  • iQiyi reported a user growth rate of 21.4% during the month and Youku announced that daily active user count set historical records.
  • Once streaming platforms began competing for hit shows, copyright fees exploded, said a media commentator on Hit palace drama “Ruyizhuan,” for instance, netted RMB 15 million from online platforms. Pay structures, where TV stations pay per episode, motivated producers to draw out shows.
  • The media regulator had announced in September that it was investigating whether a limit on show length could stop the “drama deluge.”
  • The Xi leadership marks a return to a primacy on politics and ideology, in which media is expected to play its part.

Lavender covers regulation and its effects on people. She previously worked in a policy advisory analyzing China’s internal governance for foreign governments and multinationals. A History graduate from...

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