Youku’s drama mystery

Viewers mull why streamer has been delaying episodes of its hit new show

Li Yitong-w

Li Yitong: stars in period drama Royal Nirvana

Back in April, fans of the historical drama Investiture Of The Gods, starring Deng Lun and Wang Likun, were annoyed to discover that the series on Hunan Satellite TV was being cut short. The remaining 12 episodes were being trimmed to just two, it was announced.

In fact, even two turned out to be too many, as the closing chapters didn’t get aired on TV. The series was initially still available to stream on iQiyi, Youku and Tencent Video, but then without further warning, the finale for the series disappeared completely.

Fans of the historical drama Royal Nirvana were similarly frustrated in mid-November when Youku, the online video site, began delaying and dribbling out episodes of their favourite series – contrary to its own release schedule.

Based on an online novel of the same name, the 60-episode series is set in the Southern Qi Dynasty (479-502) and tells the story of crown prince Xiao Dingduan (played by teen favourite Luo Jin).

Xiao’s half-brother wants to take the throne for himself and conspires to frame him for the death of a government official. Facing enemies on all sides, Xiao finds himself falling in love with a maidservant (Li Yitong) who unbeknownst to him was sent to murder him.

The series had developed a devoted following, proving so popular on Youku, which owns the broadcasting rights, to prompt a spike in paying subscribers (who get early access to the new episodes before non-paying members).

Nevertheless, after the release of the first five episodes to VIP members, fans were disappointed when Youku failed to upload the next three instalments according to schedule.

In fact, audiences had to wait four more days before the new episodes were aired and the series is now far behind its original scheduling.

“Did Youku purposely drag out the series so we keep paying our monthly subscriber fees?” one viewer questioned.

Youku explained that the delays were a result of “quality issues”. Without elaborating further, it asked audiences to be patient and show understanding.

Netizens found the explanation hard to believe. “Royal Nirvana claims that it has stopped releasing new episodes because of quality problems. But may we ask, what kind of problems? Perhaps there were scenes that were edited so they needed to stop the broadcast abruptly. But let’s be honest, a drama with such high production values would have received all the necessary approvals way ahead of time. And besides, as one of the three leading online video platforms, Youku releases so many shows a day, it would never encounter such laughable ‘quality issues’,” one wrote.

Other series have been halted mid-way through their run – in June Tencent Video also cited “quality issues” in the postponement of the highly anticipated fantasy drama called Novoland: Eagle Flag.

The delay was clearly a last-minute move because Tencent was still promoting the series half an hour before news came out that it had been dropped, although it was released in its entirety the following month.

Commentators said that Investiture Of The Gods and Novoland: Eagle Flag were probably pulled because regulators wanted a clear run for coverage of events around the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic on October 1, with the assumption that more entertaining fare might distract attention from the patriotic celebrations.

With the anniversary over there were signs that they were loosening their grip again, however.

Others offered an alternative explanation for the Royal Nirvana delays, claiming that Youku was renegotiating rates with advertisers. “Before the series aired, not many people were optimistic about the show so there were very few advertisers. Little did they know that it was going to be such an explosive word-of-mouth hit. Youku is likely using that as leverage to lure more advertiser and they have slowed the release of new episodes to incorporate the influx of new commercials,” was a popular suggestion on Zhihu, one of China’s leading Q&A platforms. Other netizens took a different route, pleading with Youku to hold back dramas until it is ready to release them in their entirety. “If you have reasons you can’t talk about, I wish you would just pull the whole series now and let us live. As fans of the show, we want to know when the next episodes will air. At the moment, it is like squeezing a tube of toothpaste [that is, putting out new episodes in a piecemeal fashion],” one fan fumed.

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