Sohu gets a good deal

Wang Qishan’s favourite TV show is proving a big hit in China


Ace role in House of Cards: Kate Mara

When Kevin Spacey played Richard III in the Shakespearean play, he mastered the art of confiding to the audience with asides and soliloquies. It’s a technique that Spacey employs too in House of Cards, although this time it is Frank Underwood and not an English king who seeks to communicate his inner thoughts. In one episode of the drama, Underwood memorably interrupts his swearing in as America’s vice president to address viewers of the Netflix-produced show conspiratorially. Turning to the camera he observes: “One heartbeat away from the presidency and not a vote cast in my name. Democracy is so overrated.”

The show, which centres on a scheming, ruthless politician plotting his way to the top, has been a big hit in China. The second season of the series, available to watch online on Sohu, an internet portal, has already received nearly 30 million views.

Sohu has secured the rights to broadcast the first three seasons of the series, which also stars Robin Wright and Kate Mara.

Surprisingly House of Cards hasn’t been scissored by the censors, despite feturing a number of China-related themes in the plot (the second season has cyber warfare and currency manipulation, as well as a corrupt Chinese businessman wanting to influence the White House).

“This is only a fictional story, not something that actually happened,” Charles Zhang, chief executive of Sohu, told reporters in explaining why the show had been permitted to air unrestricted. But the censors may have stood back on House of Cards for other reasons, says Zhu Ying in China File. “While the showcasing of homegrown transgressions is carefully guarded, stories that put the American political system in an unflattering light get the green light,” Zhu suggests. “US politics portrayed as devoid of principles and humanity is the best antidote to criticism of political corruption in China that the Chinese state can ever hope for.”

Maybe that’s why the show is also popular among an unexpected demographic: government officials. Sohu’s download data reveals that many of the views of the first season of House of Cards came from locations where government employees are likely to live, especially in Beijing. Xinhua reports that “a large number of government and state enterprise executives and opinion leaders also strongly recommend” the show too. For instance, Wang Qishan is reputedly a fan. Phoenix Weekly said China’s top anti-corruption tsar is “particularly captivated” with the series. The reason? The speculation is that he admired Underwood’s season one role as a House Majority Whip and was intrigued by how he maintained discipline within the legislature.

But others say that by talking about the show Wang wants to sound a warning to his staffers: “As the head of the country’s discipline committee, Wang’s constant references to House of Cards suggest that he wants to warn people within the government that what makes people corrupt is not material greed. It is the lust for power that will corrupt a person,” says popular blogger Zhao Qiqiang.

The popularity of the series has now put the Netflix business model into the spotlight too. The paid online video service, which has forked out $100 million for the show’s first two seasons, says part of the reason for its success is the time it spends analysing audience viewing habits. Instead of making a series and then hoping it catches on with a huge audience, Netflix crunches its subscriber base viewing data to identify fans of specific genres and then looks at the formula that is likely to appeal.

“We have an immense amount of data, we see everything our subscribers are watching,” says Cindy Holland, head of original content at Netflix. “We can identify subscriber populations that gravitate around genre areas, such as horror, thriller and supernatural. That allows us to project a threshold audience size to see if it makes for a viable project for us.”

According to 21CN Business Herald, some Chinese studios are using ‘big data’ to determine consumer trends too. Huace, a Shanghai-listed TV and film studio which has recently acquired data research company Croton (see WiC205), told the newspaper that data-mining still hasn’t caught on in China. But the company reckons it will become increasingly useful for producers over the next few years.

Already, several start-ups have been trying to generate commercial insight from data provided by social networking platforms. Yang Yue, who founded Datatopia, a social data service company, says his main business is writing algorithms that interpret user-generated content to gain insights into what’s trending.

“Datatopia uses data that is publicly accessible like weibo and Baidu. After we have consolidated and processed the huge quantity of information, we aggregate it and provide a detailed report that we sell to different studios,” says Yang.

Take the film Tiny Times. After mining a huge quantity of comments about the movie on different social networks (which should be pretty easy to do as the film was hugely controversial), Datatopia found that promoting the film on Hunan Satellite TV’s primetime variety show Happy Camp was likely to yield the best result. That’s because its viewership most closely matched with the film’s target demographic – women born in the post-90s generations who live in second and third-tier cities. Using this data, the studio could promote the film to the most receptive audience, Yang boasts.

However, studio execs say big data’s impact has yet to be felt in another part of the film industry: using audience information to tailor scripts or even to pick which films are most likely to be be commercial smashes.

“Right now ‘big data’ is still a complementary tool. You simply can’t decide on a script based on just a bunch of viewers’ data. However, they do offer very helpful information for reference,” one insider told 21CN.

And whatever the findings from data-driven research, the more traditional realities of Chinese TV are enduring ones. Were Netflix to run the numbers with China’s audiences, they’d probably find that a drama called House of Politburo would get record viewership. (It might perhaps revolve around the ‘rise and fall’ storyline of a venal, power-crazed Party boss running a major Chinese city in cahoots with his Lady Macbeth-style wife). But unless Wang Qishan turns his hand to a spot of scriptwriting, WiC sees little chance of that particular epic ever being made…

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