[Viewpoint] Drawing 500 million viewers

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[Viewpoint] Drawing 500 million viewers

There is a small shop in the basement of my office building. During the afternoon when the store is not busy, two of the employees are often seen with their heads hidden behind a small laptop screen. They are not playing games, but watching TV programs on their computer.

This sight is commonplace in Beijing. Even kiosk and street vendors have their computers or laptops on in order to watch television programs and dramas while serving customers.

In China it is easy to access Web sites to download programs for free.

Not only are they free, but they do not require the hassle of registration or identity verification. You don’t even need to type in an ID or password for access. They are open to anyone who clicks on them.

It is completely different from our country, where TV broadcasters and communications companies charge fees to download and watch programs.

Chinese authorities recently handed down a set of restrictive orders to TV broadcasters banning foreign dramas and movies during the prime time hours of 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The new policy by the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television aims to protect living rooms from being overrun by foreign content. A TV station’s non-Chinese daily output must not exceed 25 percent and stations cannot air more than 50 episodes of a particular foreign TV drama.

There are also restrictions on the amount of content coming from one particular country. The latter restrictions are apparently meant to target the Korean dramas that have been dominating Chinese TV channels in recent years. But the news should not greatly disturb Korean program producers who fear setbacks in exports to their largest market.

The Chinese audience is quickly shifting its source of popular entertainment away from traditional TV screens to the Internet and mobile technology. If Korean content providers develop and capitalize on the digital route, they may still be able to take hold of the world’s largest audience.

As of the end of last year, the number of Internet users in China exceeded 500 million. Online video portals are mushrooming to sprawl every year by more than 100 percent. The majority of their content is dramas and soap operas.

China’s top online video providers like Youku, Tudou and 56.com offer a variety of TV drama series from home, Korea, Japan, Southeast Asian countries, and Europe. These programs are categorized by rank and genre and can be accessed with just a few clicks - even by computer and Internet-illiterate users.

One clothing shop assistant once told me she watches five to six episodes on the Internet a day.

It is a wonder how much content the portal sites must have in order to meet such massive demand. Considering China’s notorious knack in the field, one could easily presume they are mostly pirated versions. But that is not so. Large online portal sites are listed on the Nasdaq and must strictly abide by regulations to upload and provide licensed content.

Korean dramas make money because of an intense rivalry among dozens of Web sites. But if the industry is restructured to leave a few major survivors, the upper hand in price negotiation over Korean content may change.

Korean content providers should stop fighting over the saturated market at home and look outward to the infinite sea of the Internet.

by Cheong Yong-whan

* The author is the Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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