Users of the American video streaming platform Netflix are used to binge-watching whole seasons of the popular original series House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black in just a day or two.
For that privilege, Chinese are willing to pay as well.
The online video streaming platform iQIYI on July 3 released the entire first season of its original series The Lost Tomb exclusively for paying members. Non-paying members could watch one new episode every week.
It was a hit. On the evening of July 3, the show was played about 160 million times within 5 minutes. More than 2.6 million people opted for new subscriptions, which led to the predictable result: the website crashed, only 70 percent of the subscribers could stream the show, and most new applications didn’t register.
Paying for online video streaming is still relatively uncommon in China. User revenues for Youku and Tudou, the largest video streaming websites, have grown seven times in the past year, but still only amount to about 11 percent of the websites’ total income, the majority of which comes from advertising.
The Lost Tomb – adapted from the eponymous novel by Nanpai Sanshu – might be a turning point for the video streaming websites.
“2015 is the first year for the online paid video,” said Yang Xianghua, senior vice president of iQIYI, according to Southern Metropolis Daily. “Our company has chosen The Lost Tomb to mark this outbreak.”
iQIYI said in late 2014 that it had invested 5 million yuan for every episode in the series. The first season cost 60 million yuan, not including intellectual property fees. But the investment seems to have been worth it: By July 8, The Lost Tomb had registered a total of 1.13 billion traffic hits. By comparison, the most popular Korean drama in 2013, My Love From the Star, had about 3 billion hits. The iQIYI app became a bestseller in the App Store.
The website currently has 5 million paying members and is expecting to double that number in the next four years, according to Gong Yu, founder and CEO of iQIYI. Subscribers pay 19.8 yuan per month or 198 yuan per year. (In the past month, the commercial website Taobao had thousands of offers to sell “iQIYI vip” subscriptions for 2 yuan, but they were most likely scams.)
The recipe going forward will most likely be original content.
“It’s a challenge to offer attractive content, but relying on purchasing the copyrights only is not enough to establish a website’s brand,” said Wang Zhenglun, strategic development director at United Dragons Investment Company Limited, an investment firm that focuses on the cultural field, especially original TV series. “Videos containing crime, grave robbing or ghost stories are difficult to examine and approve, so they are scarcely shown on TV. Online videos have an advantage. Online series such as the one iQIYI is promoting can easily attract a stable audience. Besides, the original content will fuel the audience’s expectations, and they will pay attention to paid series one after another.”