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Protocol | China

How a Chinese app could succeed where Quibi failed

Kuaishou won over Chinese viewers with cheaply produced, middlebrow dramas meant to be watched on phones. Now Tencent and ByteDance want in.

An ad for Kuaishou in the Beijing subway.

An ad for Kuaishou in the Beijing subway in January.

Photo: visual China Group/Getty Images

Right idea, wrong country?

Quibi got ridiculed for pushing short-form shows designed for mobile phones in the American market. But that same formula is working in China — with some crucial tweaks, like much lower production costs and ideas picked up from online works of fiction with a built-in fan base.

Kuaishou was the early winner in this battleground, but China's internet giants are racing to imitate its success. These short-form series, mainly made with amateur actors and low budgets, usually have no more than 10 episodes that run five minutes or less.

Jiaying Wang, 29, stumbled into the world of short-form drama when a 3-minute skit showed up in her Kuaishou feed. The seven-part miniseries, a soapy relationship saga filled with plot twists, got her hooked. Like most of her peers, Wang, a retail manager in Wuhan who's originally from the city of Xiangyang, seldom watches shows on TV. The quick, fast-paced shows are "more cathartic" and "fit better into my busy life," she said.

On Kuaishou, the short-video app popular with audiences outside of urban elite China, tens of millions of people like Wang are watching these short dramas. According to Kuaishou, more than 20,000 short series have been created on the service through 2020. Since the genre's emergence in late 2019, the number of people watching short dramas everyday on Kuaishou has exceeded 210 million, nearly half of the daily active users of the app, with an accumulated 35 million hours of viewing.

Short-form, professionally-generated content hasn't gotten a great start in the U.S., though Roku has said it's revived Quibi's library of originals, YouTube is spending $100 million on its vertical Shorts and Snap says its Originals have been watched by more than 85% of the U.S. Gen Z population.

A key difference is that Chinese short-form dramas aren't trying to be Hollywood Lite. Most don't feature celebrities. Corniness is a key part of their appeal. The short videos, heavy on genres like relationship or suspense, offer quick dopamine boosts by reenacting the most traditional TV tropes: evil mistresses, strict but forgiving fathers, attention-hungry concubines or sexy vampires.

Genres are merged and subverted in short-form dramas. In one popular short series, "Amazing Museum," a woman with a busy career starts to experience paranormal events, only to find that it's her dead father trying to care for her. The narrative, as with most short series, was adapted from works of online fiction.

"Audiences showed a high tolerance for imperfect storytelling and scenography in short-form dramas," said Ivan Dou, a showrunner at Chinese All Digital Publishing. Dou said short-form dramas were now a "core" way of adapting intellectual property from online work that might never have become full-length series.

The creators of the show, as well as their viewers, largely come from the xiachen (下沉) or "sinking" market, a term referring to the less-savvy internet users from lower-tier cities or rural China. Those are the same users who made Kuaishou what it is today. The short-video giant, which Tencent has invested in and whose shares trade on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, is now the second-largest short-form video service in China after ByteDance's Douyin, and now embraces livestreaming, gaming and ecommerce.

The emergence of short-form dramas is now one more battlefield for Chinese internet giants, with Kuaishou holding the upper hand. "Short-form content and streaming are fundamentally different things, but might impact the time people spend on long-form TV, so at large this put Kuaishou in competition with more than just Douyin or Tencent's WeSee," said Rui Ma, an independent tech analyst who hosts the Tech Buzz China podcast.

Tencent, Baidu spinoff iQiyi, Alibaba's Youku and streamer Mango TV, which had transformed the way the Chinese audience consumed video before Kuaishou and Douyin came along, are now pushing forward with their own plans for short-form dramas.

"Content sits at the top of the marketing funnel because it brings traffic, which is directly monetizable as advertising, or in the case of livestreaming ecommerce, directly convertible into transactions — all important segments of Kuaishou's business," said Ma.

The raw materials for Chinese short-form dramas mostly don't come from professional screenwriters. Instead, amateur online fiction writers provide most of the fodder, which is then licensed and adapted for short series.

In September, Kuaishou formed a strategic partnership with Midu Novels, an online literature service backed by Nasdaq-listed Qutoutiao. Kuaishou also let some show makers charge viewers this year. "江城花火" ("Jiangcheng Fireworks"), the most popular paid show on the service, was purchased nearly a million times at a price of 3 yuan — about 45 cents — for the entire season.

Now Tencent and ByteDance are trying to lock up their own supply of fictional inspiration for shows by buying online literature and e-book sites. Tencent bought China Literature and ByteDance bought Zhangyue Ebook, China's first- and second-largest online literature services, respectively.

"Kuaishou is expected to expand its content ecosystem in a similar way in the future too, but Tencent has the overwhelming lead here, and these things take some time to build up," said Ma.

Tencent's WeSee, its TikTok-like short-video service also known as Weishi, now has 2-to-5-minute episodic videos. The company recently reorganized its video efforts to combine its long-form Tencent Video service with WeSee. Sun Zhonghuai, who oversees the combined video unit, recently lambasted China's short-video culture as "increasingly low-intellect and vulgar" and called the videos that run on some services "pig feed," according to Caixin Global.

The increasingly fierce competition — and the push for higher-quality material — is good news for creators and production companies. The services and the large internet companies backing them are offering competitive incentives for quality content. Dou's company, China All, currently makes around 50 short-form dramas a year. Last year, all were made for Kuaishou. This year, the firm is catering to multiple large customers. Show producers are typically paid upfront for production costs and then get royalties based on traffic.

For now, short dramas remain low-budget and low-effort compared to their long-form counterparts: Dou said show budgets are reaching $60,000 on the high end, compared to what Variety estimates is $5 million to $7 million an hour for an American streaming or cable drama. But the situation could shift as both professional creators and platforms seek to push the genre into the mainstream. Far from sinking like Quibi, these shows that started out 下沉 could soon rise to the high end, as video services experiment with more polished ideas behind the scenes.

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