Chinese Video Apps Are Taking a Cue From Netflix – and Winning

Many current Netflix users may not remember the days when movies were sent in the mail, but they’ll probably recall Netflix’s best move since streaming: original content. 

Back in 2013, the war for viewers was fought between Netflix and its top rivals, Amazon and Hulu. Throw in HBO at the height of the Game of Thrones craze, and the competition to keep users streaming was fierce. 

 So, Netflix gave customers a reason to stay. In a bold move that bypassed the complicated and expensive process of licensing intellectual property, they began producing and streaming new stuff that wasn’t available anywhere else. 

House of Cards debuted as the first original content from Netflix – and it wasn’t some low-budget straight-to-video eyesore that might be expected from what we all thought was essentially an online Blockbuster. 

Instead, we got Robin Wright and a pre-canceled Kevin Spacey leading an award-winning series that lasted a respectable six seasons. The show’s popularity was quickly followed up by Orange is the New Black and other original shows.

The Race for Good Content Continues

Since then, Amazon and Hulu (who had been making short-form OC since 2011) both jumped on the original content train, focusing their efforts on long-form series and films. As far as keeping viewers loyal, all three sites are doing alright: the average American user subscribes to 3.4 video sites.  

On the other side of the planet from Netflix HQ, China’s Big Three video platforms are taking a page from Netflix’s book and seeing for themselves just how big a difference original long-form content can make in terms of viewership and revenue. 

Baidu’s iQiyi, Alibaba’s Youku, and Tencent Video make up the primary streaming sites in China that offer local TV shows, Korean dramas, NBA games, and even HBO series. They’ve been growing in popularity over the past decade, and, just like over in the States, the competition is stiff. These platforms were running out of reasons to keep viewers loyal. Not to mention, instead of getting sole streaming rights for content, nearly every platform had gotten licensing for the same shows. With nothing to distinguish iQiyi from Youku from Tencent, something had to be done. The answer became as clear as it was for Netflix in 2013: original content is the way to go. 

iQiyi particularly has been a driving force behind the wave of Chinese OC. Thanks to its 126 million daily users, the app has the revenue to put out some genuinely well-produced long-form videos. And it’s not just the quality of the content that’s drawing more subscribers – it’s the subject matter. Original content often squeaks by China’s censorship regulations, making it possible for shows about hip-hop culture and gay romance to reach a broad audience despite government restrictions. Sure, some shows are censored and removed eventually, but the possibility of catching a new show that pushes boundaries is attractive to viewers. 

Chinese Content is Here to Stay

Apparently, what goes around, comes around in the video streaming world. As China took its cue from Netflix’s venture into original content, Netflix is turning its head back to snagging videos from outside sources, like – you guessed it – China’s big three streaming sites. 

As of 2019, Youku alone had distributed 50 original productions to international distributors, including international online streaming platforms like Netflix. It’s a win for everyone: Netflix gets to reach a new market of Mandarin-speaking users around the world with authentic content, while iQiyi, Tencent Video, and Youku rake in those hearty Netflix dollars. 

Eventually, China may option to license Netflix originals to be shown on their own streaming apps, but that might be a bit further down the line. For now, Netflix seems happy enough to scoop up Chinese OC, and iQiyi, Tencent, and Youku are content to keep making it.