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Is the practice of ‘brushing’ being used to boost online TV audience figures?


Military service: Zhou Dongyu stars in Youku’s summer hit show

Brushing – or making fake orders – has plagued China’s e-commerce firms for a while. What happens is that specialised companies hack into consumers’ accounts or employ bots to place orders on e-commerce platforms like Taobao in order to get their client’s products to appear at the top of the search results (WiC has covered the topic before, see issue 327).

Brushing firms may have found a new target: online video sites. Earlier this month video platform iQiyi filed a lawsuit in a Shanghai court against a rival Hangzhou-based provider it accused of purposely driving up the number of views on its site. Industry insiders say the recent record-breaking figures for streamed dramas were already looking suspicious. Eternal Love, the 58-episode historical drama that stars actress Yang Mi, accumulated over 30 billion views. Princess Agent, another 58-episode series, also made history in June after raking in 40 billion views. That suggests that each episode was viewed a whopping 700 million times, or that one in two of the population was tuning in.

“Producers pay brushing companies to fake the data to create buzz: the higher the viewership, the more people will pay attention,” says Southern Metropolis Daily.

“Moreover, some producers have struck profit-sharing deals with online video sites. The higher the viewership, the more profits they receive from advertising.”

Although it’s hard to tell where the brushers have been busiest, a new TV series on Youku has without any doubt proven the smash-hit TV series this summer.

Shall I Compare You to a Spring Day is a coming-of-age drama based on Feng Tang’s novel Beijing, Beijing. The 40-episode drama, which sees a new instalment uploaded weekly Monday through Friday, has accumulated a more plausible 1.2 billion views in its run (as of the end of this week, the series still has 10 more episodes to go).

It follows the tried-and-tested formula of campus romance between two college goers: the artistic Qiu Shui (heartthrob Zhang Yishan) and the free-spirited Xiao Hong (A-list actress Zhou Dongyu). An unlikely friendship blossoms as they take part in their university’s compulsory military training, leading to a love triangle between Qiu Shui, his existing girlfriend and Xiao Hong.

Reviews have been pretty positive and the series has attracted a combination of younger audiences and older fans, who say it has brought back memories of their own college lives and young loves.

“The show really captures what it was like in the 1990s for all of us. We can all find fragments of ourselves in the righteous squad leader, the silly but fearless little sister and that mischievous prankster. Even the romance feels strangely accurate: hazy and hard to pinpoint,” one netizen gushed on Douban, the review site.

“In one scene a girl cries because she is forced to chop her hair [for military training]. I vividly remember how many tears I shed when they cut my hair, thinking the world was crumbling around me. But after we grow up, we realise that there are a lot worse things to be upset about and not many that are worth crying over,” another sighed.

Not everyone has been won over, including those that reckon the series has been promoting the wrong message to its younger viewers. For instance, the actresses in the series wear heavy make-up even though the characters they play are in military training. And all of the villains on the show happen to be rural folk, which some say only reinforces townies’ existing prejudices.

“I hope garbage like this never shows up on my screen again. The moral values it conveys are all messed up. A bad influence on children,” one critic thundered.

Despite the criticisms, Spring Day is another win for Youku, a leader among the online video sites that are now surpassing network television in creating popular content. In addition to Spring Day other hit series like LeTV’s Go Princess Go (see WiC310) and iQiyi’s Yu Zui – have often been web-based productions.

At this point some of our readers might be wondering how Spring Day seems to have breezed past the censors. As we outlined in WiC373, new restrictions on online dramas were unleashed in July. TV stations showing “costume dramas, idol shows or content that is deemed to be too entertaining” were among the targets in a campaign that has hamstrung the summer rosters of popular channels like Hunan Satellite TV.

To be on the safe side all drama series – online or televised – was told to display patriotic sentiments or “core socialist values”. So perhaps all that campus ‘military training’ was key to Spring Day getting the nod. However, like much of the decisionmaking by the censors, it’s hard to fathom what content gets cut and what gets by.

Just as it has for Netflix, China’s online video sites hope that original content will help to win customers and boost profits. iQiyi – Baidu’s online video platform – now generates 16% of the search giant’s topline revenues. And Alibaba, which has a majority stake in Youku, revealed during its recent quarterly earnings announcement that daily paying subscribers had more than doubled compared with a year ago. Last December Alibaba said it planned to spend $7.2 billion on its media and entertainment businesses over the next three years, and to encourage more customers to pay for streaming on Youku, where paid subscribers get early access to new episodes.

“Our strategy of acquiring and developing a mixture of licenced and original content yielded hit drama and variety shows during the quarter,” Alibaba said.

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