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Chinese concubine TV dramas spark real-life political intrigue

Baidu's 'Story of Yanxi Palace' yanked off air but remains on streaming service

"Story of Yanxi Palace," a TV series set in 18th century Beijing, has managed to spark a modern-day political intrigue. (Screen grab from iQiyi)

BEIJING -- Chinese authorities have pressured TV stations to stop airing at least two wildly popular period dramas that were produced by Baidu's and Tencent Holdings' streaming services. But the effort has observers scratching their heads. Is government censorship increasing? And why pull the shows off the air when they remain on the streaming platforms?

The hubbub over "Story of Yanxi Palace" and "Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace" began after the Beijing Daily, an official mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, in late January used its Weibo account to criticize the dramas. Weibo is China's Twitter.

The criticism came only weeks before director Zhang Yimou's "One Second," set during the Cultural Revolution, and other films were pulled from the Berlin Film Festival at the last minute in February. As a result, there is concern that President Xi Jinping's government is tightening its censorship of what Chinese watch.

The Beijing Daily said the TV dramas make the emperor lifestyle something to strive for while downplaying the virtues of hard work and frugality. The series were also criticized for emphasizing commercial incentives rather than the core socialist values endorsed by Beijing.

By then, the scheming concubines of "Yanxi Palace" had attracted a huge audience. On one day, more than half a billion viewers reportedly streamed one of the 70 episodes.

"Story of Yanxi Palace" has also gained an overseas audience. It was the most Googled TV show of 2018, according to news reports, even though Google is banned in China.

"Story of Yanxi Palace" was distributed by iQiyi, while "Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace" was distributed by Tencent Video.

"Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace" has won acclaim for its lavish sets and stellar cast. Tencent spent 300 million yuan ($44.6 million) producing the series, according to Chinese media.

In China, it is not uncommon for shows produced by streaming services to be broadcast by over-the-air stations. Many observers wonder whether executives at local broadcasters and local government officials pulled the dramas to curry favor with their bosses and Chinese Communist Party leaders.

The controversy has shined a light into Chinese home entertainment, showing that there is less censorship on streaming platforms than there is on television. It has also demonstrated a big shift in the home entertainment industry.

iQiyi and Tencent Video each draw more than 110 million viewers per day. The penetration of smart TVs, which make it easier to stream shows over the internet, has contributed. At the end of 2018, more than 200 million Chinese households, more than 40% of the total, were using smart TVs, according to a domestic research company.

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