An Expert Challenges The “China’s Booming Middle Class” Theory

A colleague writes from China in response to my post that opportunities will be created from China’s addition of 870 million middle class consumers:

You miss the point about the growing Chinese middle class and, come to think of it, about SVOD here in China.

Where to start?

First, let’s talk about the middle class television audience.

  • Let me put it kindly: China’s middle class wouldn’t know a good program if it bit them.
  • The PRC’s education system and the Chinese media are structured in a way that the viewer lacks the critical facilities to recognize good programming.
  • Specifically, they, like the broadcasters, are “risk averse” and so (unlike you or me) are unable to try something new just for the hell of it.
  • Even if there is something new on television they won’t watch it. Because they are taught from birth that “new” is “dangerous.”
  • This is a country that looks backward, not forward. Viewers here will happily embrace a 100th telling of the Chinese classic “Journey to the West“.
  • They will not watch (nor will they be allowed to watch) an episode of “The Sopranos”.
  • (It is no surprise that there is no Chinese equivalent of “The Sopranos” because the Party tells us that there is no crime in China. But that’s another story.)

Biggest Twitter Storm

  • The biggest Twitter storm about the media/television in the past six years was about a big standard doc food series from CCTV called A Bite of China.
  • Why the Twitter storm? Because there was no “mediating” presence: Neither voice of God narrator nor on-screen host.
  • In 30 years of television the audience had never once seen a doc that was not tangibly mediated by the government. (OK, maybe I exaggerate a bit. But I assure you, not much.)
  • There are no “docs” here: just ideological statements with no questions asked.

Survivors

  • Wildlife programs will survive (so long as there are no gay animals in them).
  • Classic novels and (maybe) contemporary novels will survive.
  • But docs? Nope. Not in my lifetime.

Party Bans “Winnie The Pooh”

  • And, no, the repetition of tried tropes in England like “Pride and Prejudice” is not the same. In England you can get “Pride and Prejudice” and Zombies.
  • You cannot do that in China. Why not? Because the Party controls all access to all screens. The Party determines the content you can watch.
  • And, yes, it controls SVOD.
  • “Beauty and the Beast” was banned earlier this year because it had a gay character: a teapot, I think.
  • This is a country that recently banned “Winnie The Pooh” because a blogger compared the president to the bear.

So … first off, there may be a middle class, but there is nothing for them to watch.

“VPN”

  • “Virtual Private Network” I hear you whisper.
  • The Party has announced that VPNs will be made illegal in 2018. “Use it anyway … how will they know?” you ask.
  • They will know. Trust me. They will know.
  • The urban myth of the Party employing 300,000 internet monitors may well be just that, an urban myth. But it also controls streaming/downloading speeds.
  • I am routinely blocked when I legally download material. How do they do it? I imagine that they monitor download rates. Once a file gets above a certain size the download automatically turns itself off.
  • The message on my screen “Download unavailable” or “Server unavailable.”

Pendulum Swings The Other Way

  • So … yes, your statistic is correct: the middle class is growing.
  • But that doesn’t mean that there is anything they will want to watch except more wildlife, more classic literature, and (maybe) more novels.
  • And, no, the pendulum has not started to swing the other way.
  • Control of content is tightening every day.
  • And the president is actively trying to change the constitution so that he can have a third term in office.

PETER’S RESPONSE: IT’S ALL ABOUT NICHES

  • Thanks for sharing your pessimistic view of the future of China’s documentary market based on oppressive state control combined with a culture that is conditioned to fear creativity.
  • That “Big Brother” feeling has dominated most of my own experiences in China.
    • I say “most” because in the ‘Eighties, I worked at CBS on the profitable sale to CCTV of a news feed that was sponsored by U.S. corporations.
  • However, markets are created out of niches, and China’s consumer market is rocketing towards such a vast scale that will drive new levels of demand for content in the “safe” niche documentary categories that you point to, like Natural History and Culture.
  • China’s historically unprecedented buying power will drive demand for niche products and services across the broadly defined Factual category.
  • These business models and formats may be barely understood today.
  • Outsiders will find places to play, with most striking out, and others getting hits, and perhaps a few hitting a home run or two.