Internet & Tech

Brushed aside

iQiyi ditches view counts


China’s answer to Netflix?

Last week The Story of Yanxi Palace, the biggest hit show this summer, finally concluded. The 70-episode costume drama – about scheming concubines in the Qing Dynasty (see WiC422) – had racked up 15.9 billion views on the online streaming platform iQiyi. That’s 227 million views per episode.

Sounds like a cause for celebration? However, rather than trumpeting the data iQiyi has instead announced that it is doing away with view counts on all of its videos. Starting this week, videos will be evaluated for ‘popularity’ based on a new system to “underline the company’s commitment to the highest quality content,” the platform claimed.

Backed by internet search engine Baidu, iQiyi already has the largest number of monthly active video streaming users in China. By doing away with view counts it hopes to stop “brushing” – a term for artificially inflating online data, ranging from click rates on videos to credit scores for customers on e-commerce platforms. iQiyi has been trying to stamp out the dark art.

Back in 2017, the site filed a lawsuit in Shanghai against a Hangzhou-based rival for purposely driving up view counts (see WiC377).

Content providers including production studios have hired click firms to “brush” the view counts to boost ‘audience’ numbers. Why? Because streaming platforms like iQiyi typically withhold some of the licencing fee until a series surpasses a certain viewing figure. To accelerate payment studios brush. “After all, throwing a sum of money to a brushing company is much easier than creating a genuine hit TV series. When producers and video sites have a conflict of interest, the fundamental principle dictates that both parties try to maximise their own interests first,” reckoned TMT Post, a tech portal.

Instead of showing users how many views a video has racked up, iQiyi’s new system will assign a “heat value” to videos based on how much the content has been shared, liked and commented on. The company will also deploy algorithms to assess each video’s appeal, offering a “more comprehensive measure of content popularity,” iQiyi’s chief content officer Wang Xiaohui said in a statement.

What is obvious is that iQiyi is trying to change the commercial terms in China’s online streaming industry – by taking greater control over the data that advertisers will use to make spending decisions.

Not everyone is supportive of the move. “The key is, how do you judge whether a series is hot without viewing figures? That is the most transparent number. Otherwise we’ll just have to accept whatever iQiyi claims. What it sounds like is that iQiyi is just using anti-brushing as an excuse to line its own pocket,” one analyst complained.

“Heat value? That’s changing the soup without changing the medicine,” a netizen wrote, using a common Chinese proverb that means nothing has really changed.

It seems that one reason for the new measuring tool is iQiyi’s defensiveness over paid subscriber growth. Paid subscribers are an attractive demographic for brands as they have more disposable income.

Oddly Yanxi Palace, unlike prior mega-hits, did not meaningfully boost iQiyi’s paid subs category. This puzzled some since popular shows have previously caused a surge in sign-ups because members get access to new episodes before those who use the site for free.

Perhaps iQiyi’s paid demographic is close to saturation point? That’s a conclusion some will reach if 15.9 billion views for Yanxi Palace only converted relatively few into new subscribers. iQuiyi may dislike this inference – which might explain why it’s replacing viewership figures to make it harder to ask why billions are converting only to thousands.

As for advertising executives: will they trust iQiyi’s new algorithms. And will rival online streaming sites follow its lead?

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