All is more than well for online TV shows

Yao Minji
At the Shanghai TV Festival, much of the focus was on how to develop stories that are rooted in everyday life or recent history.
Yao Minji

Few had anticipated that a selfish, stingy and disruptive middle-aged man would become the most discussed TV character in China in the first half of 2019.

Su Daqiang, the supporting character from the high-rating TV show “All is Well,” who keeps disrupting the life of his successful daughter Su Mingyu, is a strange one who measures whether the floor of the apartment he is buying is flat by rolling a glass ball on it.

“So strange but so real” is the most common comment seen from netizens. He has gained so much hatred from the audience that creative Chinese netizens have made songs about Su, animated videos about his every move, and more.

Su and the drama were also among the highest recurring words at the forums of the 25th Shanghai TV Festival, quoted often as a success case of how to make a character so rooted in life and win the hearts of audiences.

The TV fest, which has just concluded, had fewer talks about upcoming Chinese HBO offerings, a Chinese “Game of Throne” or “Sex and City” this year.

Rather, much of the focus was on how to develop stories that are rooted in everyday life or recent history, and how to draw more and younger audiences to mainstream TV series.

“There are many great things about the TV industry in America, but they also have their problems, like we have ours, and it doesn’t work if we just copy everything American, content- or industry-wise,” said Hou Hongliang, the producer of “All is Well” and who has also produced hit shows like “Nirvana in Fire” and “Like a Flowing River,” the first a period drama and the latter a hit mainstream drama showing real life stories of China’s reform and opening-up policies.

“Our idea of a good drama is not only to point out the issues in society that feel close to the heart of audience, but also to leave some kind of hope or at least something bright to look forward to, but not a happy ending that doesn’t feel real,” Hou said.

He gave the example of the ending of “All is Well,” quoting netizens who commented largely that they won’t accept a Disney-type happy ending because it would not be real.

“So we had the father getting sick, and then a semi-happy ending that his daughter forgave him because he is sick,” he said.

The concept of mainstream was also a much discussed topic at the fest.

“What I fear most is when mainstream is automatically equated with stereotypical images like propaganda slogans or standardized heroes, or when the word mainstream is abused and applied to dramas that are not,” said Gao Xixi, known for the acclaimed TV drama “Three Kingdoms” and jury president for TV series at this year’s festival.

“True mainstream must not only deliver a positive message, but also has to have detailed storylines, growing characters and a warmth that can reach the audience. Mainstream is not one genre. It can span genres — those like ‘All is Well’ that reflect the life of ordinary people, they are mainstream works too.”

Mainstream was once a word that drove young audiences away, as they see it as propaganda slogans, heroes who are too good to be real, and stories that seem so remote from them.

That has been changing gradually, with a few recent hit shows. It may change further in the months to come, as quite a few TV production companies previously known for their fantasy dramas, epic romances or teenybopper works are also developing some mainstream projects.

Huace Group, which has produced many hit shows especially popular among young audiences, announced its new projects at the TV festival which include a drama re-telling the stories of Chinese diplomats since the 1970s.

“Mainstream drama is unique by its nature, but must not be dogmatic,” the group’s founder and CEO Zhao Yifang said. “It is important to deliver the message and spirit of today’s Chinese through mainstream dramas. We are quite aware that social profits are also important in our investment, and we will have about 30 percent of projects that are mainstream, but definitely not dogmatic. Instead, we will tell great stories.” 

The change in the nature of netizens may also help more in-depth stories to be popular on video and streaming sites, as reflected by recently published statistics on China’s new media users.

“Different from what many people have expected, it is quite obvious that more people who are older are using Internet to watch videos, not the young ones,” professor Lu Di from Peking University explained, adding that it is also obvious that more people are paying.

“About 34.5 percent of income from the Internet is subscription fees,” Lu said. “We used to think it was difficult to get Chinese netizens to pay for content, but it has been proved to be possible and growing as long as the content is good.”

The report also showed China had 725 million users for audio and videos on the Internet at the end of last year, 87.5 percent of all netizens. Estimated revenue of Internet audio and video rose 52.8 percent in 2018 and that of short videos surged 744.7 percent. 

More than 230 million users paid for Internet videos in 2018, up 119 percent from a year earlier.

Only a few years back, it was common to watch romance, period, school and suspense dramas on the Internet but family, career and other styles on TV. 

That is no longer the case. Many mainstream dramas, such as “All is Well” or another recent hit, “The Thunder,” featuring drug police, were aired on both TV and streaming sites, with the latter on the Internet before airing on TV.

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