CBI News Wrap: Coronavirus Impact, Streaming Content for the Spring Festival

Audiences did not have to wait to see “Lost in Russia” during the Spring Festival

News From China

The severity of the coronavirus outbreak has cast a pallor over China’s Spring Festival. Wuhan and other cities in Hubei province are on lockdown, public celebrations across the country were cancelled and repercussions are being felt in just about every industry.

In the entertainment sector, the seven major film releases scheduled for January 25 (the first day of the Lunar New Year) were cancelled and movie theaters across the country subsequently closed their doors in an effort to slow the spread of illness. Over the longer term, delays in the production of new content should be expected as studios postpone filming plans in order to keep gatherings to a minimum.

The central government has officially extended the nationwide Spring Festival holiday by three days to Feb. 3, but some local authorities and businesses are telling employees to work from home for at least another week. More restaurants and retail outlets are likely to close in the coming days as the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in China continues to rise sharply, from around 900 on January 24 to 4,500 on January 28

Amid the worsening crisis, China’s short-video apps have managed to move to the forefront as both entertainment outlets and sources of information on the virus, even incorporating the outbreak into their Spring Festival marketing campaigns. Both Douyin and Kuaishou saw coronavirus-related searches and hashtags top their trending lists, and each app established dedicated channels for news and to allow users (including celebrities) to show support for those fighting the virus.

Kuaishou’s Spring Festival campaign “Working Against the Light” (逆光行动), which was originally intended to share stories from people who have to work during the holiday, shifted its focus to the Wuhan Central Hospital’s staff and volunteers. As interactive sponsor of the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, Kuaishou gave viewers RMB 1 billion ($144 million) in virtual “red envelopes,” and it encouraged recipients to donate their winnings to Wuhan by offering to donate an extra ten percent of the value of each red envelope. Kuaishou also offered a virtual gift called “Wuhan go, go go!” on its app that viewers could purchase during the CCTV broadcast, with proceeds going to the Wuhan Charity Association.

With help from Bytedance, one of the major Spring Festival films made Chinese movie industry history by going straight to streaming, and for free. Studio Huanxi Media opted to release comedy “Lost in Russia” (囧妈) online with the promotional support of Bytedance’s hugely influential apps, including Douyin, news aggregator Jinri Toutiao and Xigua Video. It’s the first time a film intended for theatrical release has premiered online, and the move is part of a RMB 630 million deal between Bytedance and Huanxi that will see the two companies working together on future productions and creating a joint streaming platform. It’s a clear signal of Bytedance’s ambitions to move into high-quality, long-form content. And while the holiday “gift” of a free movie was met with enthusiasm and praise from audiences, theater owners and other studios have been vocal in their criticism of the deal, expressing concerns that it may herald a major shift in China’s movie business comparable to Netflix’s disruption of Hollywood, whereby new productions may skip theatrical release entirely and go straight to streaming.

Bytedance’s news app Jinri Toutiao is also moving further into original entertainment content. In addition to streaming “Lost in Russia,” the company launched a reality show “Life Choices” (人生选择题), produced with media company Xinshixiang and sponsored by Huawei Honor. The interactive series follows celebrities guests such as actress Zhou Dongyu as they experience parallel lives, making a series of choices through various stages of life. The series generated a good deal of buzz, racking up 102 million views on Jinri Toutiao, another 75 million views on Douyin, plus 440 million views on Weibo. It marked the first phase of Jinri Toutiao’s “co-producer project,” which involves working with Xinshixiang to leverage production and marketing resources, while incorporating trending topics and influencers to create interactive content for distribution across multiple platforms.

With more viewers turning to entertainment at home during this year’s Spring Festival, here’s how each of the major streaming services sought to differentiate itself through content

  • iQiyi: The fifth season of romantic sitcom “iPartment” (爱情公寓5) was set to be iQiyi’s biggest hit during the holiday period, breaking iQiyi’s search record within 16 hours of its January 15 premiere. “Detective Chinatown” ( 唐人街探案) was also expected to draw more viewers, especially given the hype surrounding the theatrical release of “Detective Chinatown 3” (唐人街探案3), which was subsequently cancelled.
  • Tencent Video: Following the success of the recently-aired “Joy of Life” (庆余年), Tencent Video continued to emphasize fantasy dramas such as “The Pillow Book” (三生三世枕上书), a the long-awaited sequel to hit drama “Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms”, starring Dilraba and Vengo Gao, and “Ever Night” (将夜2). Tencent Video also promoted two self-produced reality shows: the comedy series “Roast” (吐槽大会4) and “Miss Beauty” (Beauty小姐2), providing more lighthearted options for the Spring Festival.
  • Youku: Compared to iQiyi and Tencent, Youku has a broader range of content in its holiday lineup. Highlights include suspense drama “Of Greed and Ants” (黄金有罪), reality show “Real Actor” (演技派) and the highly-anticipated youth drama “Forward Forever” (热血同行), starring Youku’s VIP membership spokesperson Jackson Yee. The return of “Country Love” (乡爱12) for its twelfth season is another major draw, as the series has built up a large audience over the years and watching it has become a holiday tradition for families.
  • Mango TV: The streaming arm of Hunan TV has fewer dramas on offer, but can generate traffic with its unscripted offerings, which encompass a range lifestyle-oriented subjects such as food (“Wild Kitchen” (野生厨房2)) and travel (“Viva La Romance” (妻子的浪漫旅行3) and “The Protectors” (小小的追球)), plus a popular celebrity crime-solving series in its fifth season (“Who’s the Murderer” (明星大侦探5)).

News in English

  • In the latest move to fend off Douyin’s influence, WeChat is now testing a short-video feature. The ability to post short videos is currently limited to creators who can prove their “influence,” which sounds like a good opportunity for brands to participate. KrAsia 
  • Meanwhile, Bytedance is consolidating on the short-video front, rebranding its Huoshan short-video app to integrate more closely with Douyin. Pingwest
  • Discount e-commerce app Pinduoduo has launched a livestreaming feature that allows any user of the app to host live sales and earn commissions. Econsultancy
  • Influencers who draw their appeal from traditional Chinese culture are trending across media platforms, but perhaps most notably on Bilibili. Abacus
  • Kobe Bryant’s death has been met with shock and grief in China, where he paved the way for other NBA stars to build their own lucrative brands in the country. Forbes
  • The Spring Festival isn’t all about returning home. Brands need to consider how people in different parts of the country and in different age groups celebrate the holiday, and how habits are changing over time, in order to market effectively. Campaign Asia

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