The price of a first look

How Tencent has brought back to life the practice of ‘advance viewing’

Liu Yifei-w

Liu Yifei: Tencent has looked to monetise her hit show to the max

On Sunday, Tencent Video released the highly anticipated finale of China’s hottest TV series of 2022 A Dream of Splendour. For those who missed out on our earlier article: it’s a costume drama that stars actress Liu Yifei and actor Chen Xiao.

Since early June, A Dream of Splendour has become the most talked about drama online and off. The series accumulated over 1.5 billion views the first 10 days of its release and on Sina Weibo, topics surrounding the TV series have also received 10 billion views.

So popular indeed that Tencent, which features ads within its paid streaming service, raised the rate to at least Rmb5 million for a slot.

Even this high cost did not deter advertisers, says Tech Planet. “At the moment, Splendour has over 30 advertisers,” one advertising executive told the tech news site. “An advertising space for Splendour is so highly coveted it’s now predominantly given to big names like Genki Forest, PepsiCo and L’Oreal. Some brands have bid up to Rmb5 million but were still told to wait.”

Such was the anticipation around the drama’s finale that keen elements of the audience were elated to find out that they could screen the final episode, originally scheduled to air on July 3, a week early.

However, that came at a price too. Existing VIP members were told they could fork out another Rmb18 for early access to the final episodes. Regular paying members who didn’t want to pay the fee could wait to stream the finale on July 3, while those among the non-fee-paying general public – that is, those who don’t subscribe – could watch the heavily ad-laden format of the show on July 24.

It is not the first time Chinese online video platforms have tried to squeeze as much money out of paying subscribers as possible by offering early viewing for the hottest shows. The practice began in late 2019, when iQiyi and Tencent came up with the ‘advance-screening’ feature just before the release of popular historical drama Joy of Life.

At the time, Joy of Life was so popular that more than 2.5 million people paid for advanced screening, bringing an additional Rmb145 million in revenue to the two platforms. The success of Joy of Life quickly left the video firms eager for more. In the first half of 2021, a total of 67 dramas were made available for advanced screening, or roughly a third of the total number released in that period.

Customers soon became outraged by such practices, with many accusing the videos platforms of double charging them. The state-funded China Consumers Association criticised advance screenings as “playing tricks on consumers” and “lacking sincerity” and called on the platforms to desist from its use. Amidst the controversy – and fears over more regulatory crackdowns – last October the three largest streaming platforms announced that they were doing away with advance screening.

Just when consumers thought preferential screening was gone for good, Tencent Video’s latest move suggests that it is anything but. However, don’t call it ‘advanced screening’. The internet firm explains that the fee is for a “screening party”, during which audiences can now enjoy live interaction with members of the cast, which includes Liu and Chen. They will also be entered into a lucky draw and the winners will receive memorabilia from the show.

And, as a “free gift”, these same diehard fans were able to stream the last eight episodes all in one-go last Sunday instead of having to wait until July. According to ThePaper.cn, as of Sunday morning, as many as 230,000 viewers registered for the “screening party”.

That said, comments online suggests that the drama’s sizeable audience was annoyed that advance screening had once again ‘risen from the dead’ (albeit in a cleverly repackaged format). A few fans even posted a screen grab of the complaint report they’d filed with government agencies.

Many fans of the show likened charging more for advance screening to daylight robbery. “It’s like I was watching a movie in the cinema and suddenly one person stands up and now everyone has to stand up so they can finish watching the film. But why should I? I was sitting the whole time before that,” one complained.

Part of the reason Tencent chose Splendour to bring back advance screening was likely because it felt so confident about the demographic.

“About 80% of the audience are women. In comparison, it didn’t do the same for [another hit show] Sword Snow Stride last year because nearly 90% of the audience was male, and their spending power is completely not proportional,” commented one entertainment blogger.

This adapted versions of ‘advance screening’ will likely be here to stay as online video firms including Netflix have all been struggling with slowing growth.

“This business model can indeed bring financial benefits to the platform quickly. Second, there is genuine demand for advanced screening for strong word-of-mouth dramas like A Dream of Splendour. It is hard for the platforms to give up such delicious cake,” one financial commentator surmised.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.