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March 25, 2010

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Computer screen viewing rivals the silver screen

THE little screen, the little computer screen, is luring patrons from movie theaters, DVD stores and that sofa in front of the TV, as just about everything is available on Internet video-sharing platforms.

Apart from the little screen size, which can be annoying (but you get used to it), watching movies and TV series on computer has a lot of advantages. It's free (so far), it's convenient, viewers can watch at any time and anywhere and watch past episodes from archives. And there are no annoying typical TV commercials.

They can also chat online about the films, their characters and their plot lines.

But as the popularity of online viewing spreads, copyright purchase and protection is expected to be a big issue for online video sites, especially if they want to go public. Anti-piracy enforcement can be difficult in China but if authorities really crack down, many sites and viewers would feel the pain.

Free video

"These Websites need to build up a mature and effective profit mechanism within three years," says Liu Haibo, a teacher in film and TV art at Shanghai University.

"In the future, payment may be required to watch videos on the sites and product placement will also be applied to many of its dramas."

But for now, it's free.

Every day Alex Zhang, a 30-year-old white-collar worker, checks the Baidu post bar (an online forum community integrated with micro-blogging features) for the latest schedule and information of his favorite TV dramas online. No longer does he spend hours in front of a TV set.

Zhang has also built a MSN group for the other Netizens with the same TV drama interest.

"The Internet allows a very special and enjoyable viewing experience for all of us," Zhang says. "It offers me the flexibility of watching the series at my convenience and not planning my day or night around the TV timings."

Many young Chinese students and busy white-collar workers like Zhang have switched from TV to the Internet. They usually go to online video sharing platforms such as, and PPStream.

Though the computer screen is tiny, many fans say online viewing has unparalleled advantages compared with TV.

"First, we are seldom interrupted by commercials," says Zhang. "Plus, all the series are available from archives at any time. We don't have to catch up on each episode of prime time dramas that we missed."

Additionally, as users from home and abroad can quickly upload and share videos on these sites, Netizens in China can view the latest foreign productions, usually several months in advance of official Chinese release.

And interactivity makes everyone a critic.

The huge potential of online TV drama viewing is evident to Website executives.

"Last year we spent over 10 million yuan (US$1.4 million) to buy copyrights of 10,000-hour hot TV dramas," says Jiang Weimin, chief content executive of

"Now TV series and films represent 70 percent of all the content on our Website and the proportion is constantly increasing."

Among the hit series on are "The Myth," a back-to-the future production, which has already got 200 million click-through rate; the realistic drama "Dwelling Narrowness," and the latest Taiwanese idol drama "P.S. Man" starring Bianca Bai and Sonia Sui.

Given concerns about piracy and copyright, the purchase prices are rising for video-sharing sites.

In the past year the sale price to online video-sharing sites of a new TV drama from a TV station or a TV drama production company has increased by around six times, on average, a big cost for any Website, according to Jiang from

To save on purchase cost, and have partnered to share copyrights and jointly broadcast video. The two sites plan to exchange exclusively copyrighted content for free.

Making their own interactive Internet dramas is another trend for Websites that are pinched by rising prices of copyright.

Small-budgeted dramas, such as "Su Fei's Diary" (2008) don't feature big-name stars and magnificent scenes, but it offers flexible storylines, original grassroots adventures and lots of interactivity.

Pressure on TV

Traditional TV media has felt the pressure from new media that are snatching their audience.

Some stations, such as CCTV and SMG, have opened segments of their Websites where viewers can watch TV live on the Internet.

Channel Young and others are closely analyzing their audience and trying to appeal to Net watchers by launching "post-80s generation time," offering creative realistic dramas about funny and pressing issues for young people.

"It is inevitable that today's audiences have more channels and a wider platform to watch a TV serial," says Yang Wenhong, director of Shanghai Media Group's Film and Drama Center. She addressed a recent conference in Shanghai about drama production and broadcasting.

"This is not such a bad thing for us as we have already expanded our businesses from simply broadcasting to drama production and distribution. As to these Websites, we're also a major content supplier. Both of us can seek possibilities for collaboration and a win-win mode."

Industry observers say new media is a good way to nurture and enlarge a loyal audience base for domestic TV drams. In a sense, the competition is beneficial because it makes a bigger cake for the whole industry.

Huayi Bros Media Group, which made a profit of 100 million yuan from its dramas last year, plans to shoot 18 new TV series this year.

Wang Zhongjun, the group's board chairman and founder, says the smaller budget and more stable returns on TV drama production provide the industry a lower entry barrier than that of film production.

"However, we have seen a big gap between the Chinese TV drama industry and the industry in the US and elsewhere," says Wang. "We're short of fabulous scripts and really experienced actors. So we just forget the competition for the time being. The overriding and urgent mission for us is to improve and guarantee the quality of our productions."

According to Shanghai lawyer Liu Chunquan, many video-sharing Websites in China offer pirated materials. The reasons are the high cost of buying the copyrights for so many films and TV dramas, as well as the lack of copyright purchase channels for some productions, both domestic and foreign.

"It is good to see some big Chinese Websites have realized this problem and started to pay for the copyrights," Liu says. "Some are also considering becoming listed companies, so they know they must first solve the piracy problem in a positive way."

Though many Chinese video-sharing Websites are now backed by big venture investment, Liu recommends they establish an effective copyright profit mode as soon as possible. This could include attracting more ads before screening and charging viewing fees. Developing a mature mechanism to make profits while buying copyrights is one of the best ways to combat piracy in China, he says.


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