China’s Internet Stars Embrace Lowbrow — And Aim For High Profits

October 20, 2016

Huang Xian’er came of age while watching Internet celebrities’ streaming videos on her smartphone in western China’s Yinchuan city.

“My mom knew I was watching Internet stars in school,” she recalls. “She simplistically thought that all Internet stars sell clothes, get plastic surgery and all look the same.”

The stereotypical Chinese Internet star’s cookie-cutter facial features — for men and women — include doe eyes, a high nose bridge and a pointy chin. Huang shares all these, and although she retouches her photos a bit to accent her features, neither she nor her mother sees any need for surgery.

Huang aspires to fame in China’s streaming Internet video market, which Credit Suisse estimates will be worth $5 billion next year, not far behind the country’s $7 billion in movie box office revenues.

Just a few months out of college and after only a few months of work, Huang, 20, already has a few hundred fans on her channel on Youku, China’s version of YouTube. And she has signed a contract with an Internet talent firm.

Internet stars will change the structure of China’s society and economy, says Beijing University new media expert Tian Li, and will increasingly vie with traditional media and political elites for attention and authority.

“To a certain extent,” she predicts, “they will change the answer to the question: Who is most influential in our society?”

Such complexities are far from Huang’s mind as she tries to carve out a niche for herself as a specialist in travel videos.

On a recent day, Huang sits down in the studio of the talent firm that’s signed her to live-stream a video, chatting with a guest about hiking around Beijing.

As they talk, little emoticons — hearts, flowers, gifts — waft across the phone’s screen. Huang’s fans spend real money to buy these virtual gifts and she gets a cut of it.

Next, Huang shoots a video that parodies state television’s evening news. It also contains commercials for various Chinese delicacies, from hairy crabs to smelly tofu to fresh coconuts.

It’s a tongue-in-cheek mashup of advertorial and infotainment. The other ads are fake, but the crab ads are real. Huang and the talent firm’s boss, Gu Yongliang, cut a deal with a food company to mention the product in their video.

Because Huang is not famous and has relatively few fans, Gu’s company didn’t charge the food firm to plug the crabs. They did it just to build their network and get experience.

Gu, Huang’s 35-year-old boss, is positioning himself at the bottom of the industry. He’s cultivating potential stars with no fan bases. Companies up the food chain with more money to invest will sign only established stars with up to a million fans.

Gu learned Internet marketing in his former job with the travel website TripAdvisor. He started his Internet video firm in March. He’s now “incubating” more than 40 Internet stars, who live in a communal dormitory and live-stream hours of Internet video each day.

In some respects, Gu’s enterprise looks familiar to journalists and artists. He’s producing Internet content, trying to make it go viral and then monetize it. Gu hasn’t turned a profit yet, but he likes what he’s doing.

“To help these young Chinese with dreams to go even further in their creative work is something I feel that has great value,” he says.

His strategy is to market Huang as a travel video specialist because it’s a relatively uncontested niche in China.

Comedy, for example, is dominated by Jiang Yilei, a Shanghainese drama school grad student whose rapid-fire caricatures border on social criticism. Her videos have won her millions of fans and millions of dollars in advertising fees.

Zhang Dayi, who sells clothes that she designs on her online store, typifies another, more commercial type of Chinese Internet star.

There are also legions of mostly female stars who host live-streaming shows in which they sing, dance, bump, grind and banter with an audience that is mostly young, male and from second- and third-tier cities, and who shower the stars with virtual gifts.

The government has warned against programming it considers vulgar and hedonistic, and Internet stars are ignored by the country’s mainstream media.

But Beijing University’s Tian Li argues that fans are not looking for professionally produced, highbrow content. They want content they can relate to, made by people they idolize.

“Because I like you or your image, I don’t really care what you’re saying,” she explains. “What’s more, just because I’m your fan, I’ll gladly accept anything you recommend.”

Tian adds that government efforts to regulate the live-streaming industry are unlikely because they would be too difficult to enforce. And she insists that Internet stars should not be easily dismissed.

“We should give them more opportunities for healthy growth, and not make the whole industry feel that they’re inferior,” she says. Or make them feel, she adds, that they can only “get rich in silence” without ever earning society’s acceptance.

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