Failing ratings

More bad news for the entertainment business, with TV figures queried

Xiao Yin-w

Xiao Yin: one of the stars of Guo’s controversial TV drama

China watchers have long been sceptical about some of the country’s statistics, which can seem suspiciously smooth and steady. China’s gross domestic product, for instance, grew 6.8% in the first quarter of this year, a rate that was unchanged from the previous quarter. Which, by the way, was the same rate as the quarter before that.

It’s not just the economic data that raises eyebrows. Film studios have been buying up movie tickets to boost box office rankings; sales are “brushed” on e-commerce sites to get products higher up the display rankings; and the view counts for online videos are being challenged because of ‘click farms’ hired to inflate the figures.

Earlier this month, iQiyi announced that it won’t display the number of views on its user interface, for instance (see WiC424).

Last week, a well-known TV director revealed that the country’s audience ratings for television can only be trusted so far too.

Guo Jingyu, a prolific director and producer, sold a new drama called Mother’s Life to Beijing Satellite TV. To promote it, he made an appearance at Hubei University, detailing the trials and tribulations of making the show, which tells the story of a woman (starring Guo’s real-life wife Yue Lina) trying to reunite with her five children. The drama also features starlet Xiao Yin and Liu Yuhan.

What was unexpected was that Guo launched into an expose of the dirty dealings in the industry. According to him, before Beijing Satellite TV picked up his show, he had promoted it to a provincial-level television station, which agreed to broadcast it. The director signed a contract and waited to be notified when it would air. But instead a meeting was arranged with a “big shot”, as Guo described him.

This man announced that he would ensure “good ratings” for the drama if he was paid Rmb900,000 (about $130,800) per episode.

Guo balked at the suggestion. As the show has 80 episodes, he would have had to fork out Rmb72 million in total.

The “big shot” assured him that all of the major hit shows of the last three years had bought ratings in order to claim massive viewerships.

“But the network is only offering Rmb1.3 million per episode, that means nearly 70% of that money would have gone to the ‘extortion fee’. And even then he wouldn’t guarantee that the drama would reach the top two slots on the charts,” Guo revealed.

“When I first started in the industry, I remember hearing these kinds of rumours. I never believed them but now I can attest that they exist. I also would never have predicted that it would happen to me.”

After Guo declined the offer, the person went to Beijing Satellite TV and warned the channel not to broadcast Mother’s Life.

The extorter also threatened to flood social media with negative comments and drag down the drama’s ratings on Douban, the TV and film review site, “because I had broken their rules.” Guo wrote on his weibo afterwards.

The director said he decided to make the case public so that the corrupt practices can be curbed. “If this industry continues to be such a mess, it will have no future,” he declared.

It isn’t the first time the TV industry has been accused of corruption. In 2010, the People’s Daily published three in-depth reports showing how the sample sizes used by audience rating agencies to measure engagement could easily be rigged.

In 2012, another producer called Wang Jianfeng revealed that a television rating agency in Xinjiang was charging Rmb7,000 an episode to manipulate its findings.

Wang Changtian, president of Beijing Enlight Media Group, also said that the reason his company pulled out of TV production in 2015 was that it refused to get involved in fabrication of viewership data.

Industry observers say the buying of high ratings is an open secret in the sector. In an interview with Sina Entertainment, screenwriter Wang Hailin said a flurry of investment in the entertainment industry over the last five years, especially in the provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, has created a crop of new production companies, all anxious to stand out with a hit series in their portfolio.

“These studios soon realised that it is much easier to buy ratings than to produce a great show so they just bought the ratings. That also explains why in recent years there have been fewer and fewer good TV dramas. The people who value production values have all been eliminated,” Wang Hailin commented.

Another reason that producers want to rig the numbers is because shows with poor ratings are usually axed before the end of their runs. Nor is it unusual for the networks to sign contracts requiring that the viewing ratings reach certain thresholds before the production companies are paid in full. As a result, the studios have a vested interest in keeping their series on air as long as possible.

“The way satellite networks make money is no longer from government subsidies but from selling to advertisers,” noted Huxiu, a portal. “TV networks want to fetch good prices for the airtime, while advertisers want to make sure that they see results. So TV ratings become an important benchmark that both parties can agree on to value their investment.”

In fact, the practice is so commonplace that industry insiders seemed totally unfazed when they were asked about it. They only expressed shock at the amount that Guo was asked to pay. “It is not uncommon to allocate at least 10% of the production budget to buying ratings. But it is the first time that I have heard 70%; that seems ridiculous,” one declared.

The TV ratings service that monopolises the market in China is CSM Media Research. After AC Nielsen retreated in 2009, CSM was formed as a joint venture between China’s largest market information provider, CTR Market Research, and Kantar Media, a global leader in media research and audience measurement. It deploys two main measurement techniques: the lower-cost, lower-tech solution, which sees audiences recording their daily viewing habits on a report card, and the higher-tech method, which draws data directly from measurement devices in households.

According to Huxiu, fraudsters can skew the data in any number of ways. For instance, they might track down a sample of more rural audiences and convince them to watch a certain show by holding promotional events in their neighbourhoods, or by giving them ‘gifts’.

“To influence the audience rating surveys in their favour, the TV production companies pay the ‘sample homes’ to turn on their TVs at the time a certain show is broadcast,” China Daily added. “It seems almost everyone is enjoying the ‘party’, except that the quality of TV dramas is suffering. Supervisors for the audience rating survey, it appears, have failed to perform their duties.”

Following Guo’s accusations, the country’s culture and entertainment industry watchdog, the National Radio and Television Administration (NRTA), issued a short one-sentence notice saying that it would launch a national investigation into the issue. The National Bureau of Statistics announced its own review on the same day.

Last week, the media also reported that Yang Weiqing, president of iResearch, another leading statistics and consulting group, and that firm’s CTO Hao Xincheng had both “disappeared”. Netizens were soon speculating that this meant that they have been taken in for questioning, probably in relation to the wider ratings scandal.

“While iResearch’s business is not directly connected to TV show ratings, it is possible the company has ties or insider information about the issue,” reckoned TechNode.

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