Korea’s Descendants converts China to paying subs

It has romance, drama, exotic locations and impossibly good-looking actors. Korean drama series Descendants Of The Sun also has the kind of fanatical appeal that gets Chinese viewers to start paying for content.

According to Chinese streaming service iQiyi, the hot Korean show has contributed to a 3 million spike in paying VIP members since it started to air on February 24.

iQiyi has exclusive rights to stream the 16-episode series at the same time as its broadcast on Korean TV channel KBS2 on Wednesday and Thursday nights. The show has been a huge hit in Korea, with a recent episode claiming more than 30% of the viewing audience. iQiyi’s VIP members, who pay an annual subscription fee of $30 (RMB198), get to enjoy the show without ads and two episodes ahead of free viewers.

At the end of last year, iQiyi had 10 million paying users, and while exact figures are not yet available, is now believed to have around 13 million. Zhang Yuxin, iQiyi intellectual property rights manager, told local press that the show has racked up more than 1.2 billion views since the first episode.

Set in the fictional war-torn Republic of Uruk, the show stars Song Joong-ki as a handsome army captain who finds time between heroic feats to fall in love with a beautiful volunteer doctor, played by Song Hye-kyo. The entire series was filmed in Greece and Korea before broadcast, an unusual strategy for Korean dramas, which are usually still shooting while already on the air.

The show is the first TV production from ambitious film producer-distributor Next Entertainment World (NEW), a relatively new studio that has given Korean market leaders CJ, Showbox and Lotte a run for their money in recent years. NEW’s international sales arm Contents Panda is now shopping Chinese and Japanese remake rights to the series, which has been sold in its original version to 32 countries including the US, UK, France, Germany and Italy.

Hot dramas like Descendants and iQiyi’s recent Chinese production Grave Robbers’ Chronicles appear to be the most effective way to convince Chinese viewers to start paying for subscriptions after several years of accessing content for free. Although Chinese authorities have been cracking down on pirated online content in recent years, nearly all the Chinese streaming platforms are advertising supported and free to viewers.

iQiyi’s competitor Youku Tudou was one of the first platforms to introduce a premium paid subscription package, while LeTV has always had some kind of pay model in the mix.

According to iResearch and China Internet Network Information Center, revenues from paid subscriptions to streaming sites have almost tripled from $32m (RMB210m) to $90m (RMB590m) in the past year.

Descendants’ Chinese success may have been helped by the fact that NEW has a Chinese investor in Hangzhou-based Huace Media Group. People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, appears to be a fan – after expressing concern over fanatical binge-watching of Korean TV dramas, the paper praised the show as “an excellent advertisement for conscription”.

The final episode of Descendants airs on April 14, a date that will leave an army of fans bereft, whether or not one of the two main characters is killed off as NEW CEO Kim Woo Taek cleverly hinted to Korean paper JoongAng Ilbo earlier this week.