Can 1990s American sitcom Friends save struggling Chinese video streamers from a short video in 2022?

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Major video streaming companies including iQiyi, Tencent Video, Youku and Bilibili will officially air an American TV sitcom Friends in China, as platforms compete for eyeballs with short-form video services.

The 10-season hit show, which first aired on NBC between 1994 and 2004, will be released in China this Friday and air one season a week, the companies all announced on their official Weibo accounts. They haven’t disclosed any pricing at this point.

The move comes as Chinese video streaming platforms struggle to attract users amid the growing popularity of short video sharing apps such as ByteDance’s Douyin, Chinese sister app to TikTok and Kuaishou Technology, which are attracting Internet users with short attention spans. China’s rigid censorship laws also prevent video streamers from importing new hits such as South Korean dramas. squid game, produced by Netflix.

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At stake is China’s multi-billion dollar video streaming industry, which had 944 million users in June last year, according to the state-run China Internet Network Information Center. The average daily usage time of short-form video apps was 125 minutes in March 2021, 27 minutes more than the time spent on traditional long-form videos, according to research firm Questmobile.

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iQiyi, Youku and Tencent Video last year attacked short-form video platforms for profiting from copyright infringement, claiming that user-generated music videos and TV clips were hurting their business, which relies on exclusive video content to attract subscribers. China’s National Copyright Administration said last April it would step up its review and rectify any copyright violations, following a public call by film and TV producers to end copyright infringement. these practices.

In December, iQiyi launched a wave of layoffs, cutting more than 30% of jobs in high-cost departments, such as marketing and distribution, according to reports from Chinese media Yicai and news portal Sina.

The official return of Friends in China shows the comedy’s enduring appeal despite rising tensions between Beijing and Washington in recent years, and signals that Chinese authorities do not view the content as subversive. The show has proven popular with Chinese viewers over the years, many of whom have watched pirated copies of the show.

The unauthorized distribution of Friends on Chinese video sites has also created a huge fanbase among the country’s urban youth. The American sitcom first became popular in China as an English learning tool in the 1990s, when the Chinese government introduced economic reforms and encouraged trade with the West.

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In 2015, the National Radio and Television Administration of China required all foreign series to be registered and obtain a license number before airing, which slowed down the airing of shows with many episodes. Sohu Video made Friends available on its platform in China in 2012, but the rights expired in 2018. Sohu is also among the video streamers to have won the rights to broadcast the show this time.

In May last year, platforms such as iQiyi, Tencent Video and Youku all received licenses to air a special episode of Friends: Reunion. iQiyi is owned by Baidu while Youku is owned by Alibaba Group Holding, which also owns the South China Morning Post. The episode was censored, however, with appearances by Lady Gaga, Korean boy group BTS and Justin Bieber being removed.

The special episode also sparked a fight between streamers after “uploaders” rushed to repost the reunion on bilibili, the platform for sharing and broadcasting videos. Once considered a “good deed” on the Chinese internet, the practice is now unacceptable to sites that actually paid to broadcast the show.

It is not clear whether all Friends the episodes will be broadcast without cuts. Tencent Video, a unit of internet giant Tencent Holdings, has been publicly criticized for removing game of thrones nudity scenes. Fans were particularly annoyed when Tencent delayed the release of the series finale due to a “technical issue”, a term often used when censorship is involved.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice on China and Asia for over a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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