By Evan DeSimone
China is ever-so-slowly opening its door to streaming foreign TV content. The country’s largest digital television company, Youku Tudou, which has alternately been described as China’s answer to YouTube or to Netflix, has received approval from SAPPRFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television) to stream the Korean drama Hyde, Jekyll, and Me. The approval is the first for a streaming service since the passage of new SAPPRFT regulations governing the streaming of foreign TV and movies.
The approval comes after a recent crackdown by SAPPRFT on licensed and state run television providers. The new regulations aimed to rein in the use of digital set-top boxes, as well as mobile television apps both of which could potentially allow users to access uncensored content from foreign sources. The era of internet television has forced China’s various censorship organizations to work overtime to prevent citizens from gaining unfettered access to unfiltered content.
Given Youku Tudou’s close relationship with the Chinese government and its censors, it’s not surprising that it’s the first to get new content approved by the SAPPRFT. China’s regulations tend to favor local companies who have cultivated a close working relationship with the government and its censorship agenda. These regulations can be far tougher on Western streaming outfits like Netflix and YouTube, both of which have stumbled after announcing Chinese expansions.
At times, it seems like Western streaming platforms are channeling Richard Nixon with their grandiose plans for cracking the Chinese video market. With 1.3 billion potential viewers at stake it’s certainly an attractive option. However for digital media companies built in and around the freewheeling western internet market, entering China’s heavily-regulated and highly-censored media ecosystem can lead to serious culture shock. Western streaming platforms owe much of their success to the fact that they exist in a largely unfettered space, often inventing the rules as they go along. It’s a free form approach that doesn’t easily mesh with China’s tightly controlled media culture.
That culture has spawned its own native streaming sevices, all of which boast numbers that should give Western streamers pause. Youku Tudou claims 185 million monthly unique users, while competing Chinese online platform iQIYI has almost 5 million paid subscribers. Add to that the recently launched SVoD arm of Alibaba, a massive Chinese E-Commerce service, and the online video landscape in China begins to look a lot less welcoming. Chinese’s censorship regulations double as protectionist policy, handing a natural advantage to native video providers who are well versed in, and willing to comply with, censorship regulations.