Timeless appeal

LeTV online drama pulls in record 200 million viewers

Zhang Yuxin w

Zhang Yuxi: stars as a court beauty in hit drama Tang Dynasty Good Man

After Mo Yan won the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, an old photo of him with film director Zhang Yimou soon went viral. The picture was taken 25 years ago at Mo’s cottage in the rural county of Gaomi. Mo had just sold the movie rights to his novel Red Sorghum for Rmb800 (about $215 in 1987). The film not only made Mo famous – it also helped him afford to buy a cow.

Producers are still on the look-out for books that might be turned into hit dramas. The latest success story is Tang Dynasty Good Man made by LeTV – an online firm which specialises in streaming television shows.

Unlike Mo’s masterpiece, Tang Dynasty Good Man started out on the internet as a serialised novel from an author whose pen name is Duoyiban. It rapidly became a six-edition bestseller, attracting the attention of LeTV for its own online channel. LeTV struck it lucky: the series has been viewed more than 200 million times.

So what is Tang Dynasty Good Man about?

The main character – called Wang Zihao – is a demoralised bank executive who fails to meet his sales targets and has been dumped by his girlfriend. One night he gets drunk and is hit by a truck. Somehow this sees him travel back in time 1,200 years to the Tang Dynasty, where he is reincarnated in the body of a newly-dead duke. The tale follows Wang’s transformation from a bank lackey to the most popular aristocrat in the Tang capital of Chang’an (today’s Xi’an).

The Tang Dynasty is generally regarded as the golden age of Chinese civilisation, which may explain some of the audience fascination with this costume drama. But the 40-episode series also bridges two different worlds. Thanks to his modern-day knowledge and marketing know-how, Wang proves adept at becoming rich. He then uses his fortune to seduce a slew of Tang beauties.

It’s an enticing fantasy, but the premise of a modern-day loser making good in the distant past is not wholly new. As we reported in WiC98, Gong was the first of the so-called ‘time travel’ dramas to prove a commercial hit. It spawned plenty of copycats, but the TV regulator viewed them as so mindless that it banned them from network and satellite television channels.

But as LeTV’s success shows, audiences seem to love the format. And because the series is being distributed exclusively online, objections from the regulator don’t apply.

Tang Dynasty Good Man is being watched on internet-enabled ‘smart TVs’. As we reported in WiC194, LeTV has signed a deal with Foxconn to make LeTV branded smart TVs, which are optimised for its own content. LeTV’s strategy is to offer a number of different viewing formats. Each new episode is made available on the so-called ‘four screens’ at the same time – i.e. on personal computer, smart TV, smartphone and tablet. Most people watch on smartphones. “The main pool of our audience come from white-collar workers riding on the metro everyday,” a LeTV producer told the Economic Observer.

All told, eight year-old LeTV looks to be a media firm to watch. While some Chinese video websites owe their success to pirated material, LeTV has built its audience by airing legitimate content. The bulk of its revenue is derived from subscription fees (which cost around Rmb20 per month), although a free service is available to those who don’t mind a minute or so of advertisements ahead of shows.

The firm also buys copyrights for films and popular TV dramas. But as these costs climb, LeTV is producing more original content and China’s literary websites have become a favourite hunting ground for inspiration. The strategy is that fans of popular novelists provide a ready audience and according to the Economic Observer, members of LeTV’s production team are tasked with reading 30 million words of internet novels every year in search of the next hit. “Almost all of the rights to the top 20 novels on each literature website have been bought by LeTV,” the newspaper said.

A media revolution, then?

People’s Daily thinks so: “Television’s role as the leading medium has been weakening. The era of big internet productions is arriving.”

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