Live-Streaming Apps Boom in China, Fuel Celebrity, Create New Stars

  • Some observers claim a new video-streaming app is launched in China every few hours.
  • The so-called “Internet celebrity economy” generates more sales than the country’s box office.
  • Filmmakers are using the technology to create buzz, boost box office earnings and promote products.

A woman wearing no makeup and dressed in a t-shirt and shorts saunters through her kitchen making hong shao rou, red-braised pork belly. In between bouts of cooking she attempts to cajole her son to share his toy Ferrari. In the new online world of video live streaming in China, it could be anyone.

Instead, it’s Chinese actress Yao Chen who agreed to live-stream from her home for local charity Free Lunch last Sunday, May 22. The fairly quotidian broadcast by Yao, who has more than 79 million followers on microblogging platform Weibo and starred in last year’s mega-hit Monster Hunt (China’s No. 2 movie of all time), went out live to 4.7 million people on Internet portal Sina’s live-streaming app called Yizhibo.

Yao’s celebrity-at-home appearance on Yizhibo gave it a big but fleeting advantage among the scores of apps to stream live video that are being downloaded and used in huge numbers in China, and is a testament to the all-pervasive nature of celebrity obsession. The Chinese apps are corollaries to American video streaming services Periscope, owned by Twitter,  and Facebook Live, both of which are blocked in mainland China.

China’s live streaming video apps are estimated at about 80 in number so far, with some observers claiming there is a new video-streaming app launched in China every few hours.

Most of China’s tech giants, including instant messaging and gaming company Tencent, mobile handset maker Xiaomi, portal and microblogging giant Sina, and the country’s video streaming sites YoukuTudou, iQiyi, and LeTV, all have rushed into the rapidly growing space, joining upstarts such as Panda TV, an e-sports streaming app owned by Wang Sicong, the son of Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man, a real estate mogul with aspirations in media and entertainment.

The live streaming sector is growing so quickly in China that it is creating its own economy—referred to by industry commentators as the Internet celebrity economy, or the wǎng hóng jīngjì (网红经济). Users of the live-streaming apps can “tip” their favorite streamers with virtual presents that can then be converted to cash.

On Yizhibo, the top streamers are ranked, not just by how many followers they have, but also by the value of all the virtual presents they have received.  As of this writing, streamer Big Sister King (dà jǐng jiě 大景姐) ranks number one with 28,000 followers and 1.69 million “diamonds,” the app’s currency.

Streamer Yvette_521, sits in third place, despite only having 470 fans. Her haul of 920,000 “diamonds” puts her ahead of A-list celebrity and actress Zhou Xun, who lags behind in fifth place.

Like many of their counterparts on Western social media platforms, a huge number of these Chinese Internet celebrities  use their platform to promote skincare and makeup products, a behavior they’re likely to be getting paid for.

The Internet celebrity economy has become so big that a report released this week by CBNData valued its current 2016 worth at more than the film industry’s 2015 gross box office total.

In the intense competition for eyeballs, content streamers have pushed the envelope, prompting media regulators to ban live-streamers from filming themselves eating bananas in a “seductive” fashion.

In April, the Ministry of Culture announced it was investigating a number of popular live-streaming platforms for allegedly hosting pornographic or violent content that “harms social morality.”

The push by regulators has made a strategy of enlisting mainstream celebrities to certain platforms even more enticing. Companies are scrambling to tie down particular actors to their apps to enliven their pool of amateur stars.

What’s more, filmmakers are using the technology to build buzz in the early stages of a movie’s production. On May 4, actor Wang Baoqiang used the Douyu live-streaming app on the set of Buddies In India (大闹天竺) in India to interact with over 5 million fans.

On March 29, livestreaming app Xiandanjia 咸蛋家 partnered with the film Lost in White (冰河追凶) to livestream a press conference promoting the Hong Kong crime drama. Up to 2.6 million viewers watched the stream, the app claims, which included the film’s star Tong Dawei answering questions.

And just days before streaming her cooking-at-home session, Yao Chen, voiced her support for 63-year-old film producer and screenwriter Fang Li who had taken to his knees pleading for more theaters to show the art house film Song of the Phoenix.

Fang’s emotional appeal, which went out to 45,000 viewers via Sina’s own video live-streaming app at the time,  but subsequently went viral, helped rally support for the fledgling art house film and helped it reach third place at the box office earning $7 million.

The technology is also enabling stars to give their fans a taste of the glamour behind international film events. At the Cannes Film Festival, A-list celebrity Li Bingbing live streamed herself in the makeup chair, applying makeup to a traveling reporter, eating, chatting in English to her European drivers as they take her to the next red carpet.

French cosmetics company L’Oreal used their own live-streaming accounts to broadcast questions they posed to their brand ambassadors at Cannes, including veteran actress Gong Li,  actress–singer Li Yuchun, and the star Jing Boran, best known for his role in Monster Hunt, in France to promote Time Raiders (盗墓笔记).

Competing for the attention of viewers was 24 year-old Huang Jingyu from the hit web series Addicted  that was banned by Chinese media regulators earlier this year. Huang was invited to Cannes by Harper’s Bazaar China and Xiandanjia.

In the end, there’s little difference between the user generated content and that coming from more traditional celebrities. The host of the live-stream asks Gong Li what she’s got in her handbag. Gong Li turns around, opens the bag to reveal its contents. “This is a wet towel, and this is lipstick — it’s L’Oreal.”

Additional reporting Skye Tan, Zoe Law and Chet Leung.