Caixin
Jul 13, 2017 06:36 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Fans Mourn Disappearance of Beloved Foreign Shows From Popular Website

(Beijing)—Fans of foreign animation, films and TV series are dismayed, as most of their favorite shows disappeared overnight from one of China’s most-visited trove of free videos.

Users of Bilibili, a popular video-sharing website in China, discovered Wednesday evening that the majority of the best-loved shows — including “Black Mirror” and “Game of Thrones,” plus Thai, Japanese and even Norwegian titles that are favored by narrower crowds — are no longer accessible.

Viewers were shocked by the removals and anxious about the fate of their much-relied-on source of entertainment. But there has been no explanation yet as to why the myriad shows vanished so swiftly and unexpectedly.

The sudden overhaul may be linked to a recent campaign by state regulators to tighten control over online content, while others say the removal has been an ongoing risk for the site as many of the videos are not properly licensed.

The company did not respond to questions from Caixin on the number of licensed shows it holds.

Now the website — which boasts close to 35 million active users daily — is all but barren. The top trending videos are now oldies, such as the 1983 miniseries “Jane Eyre,” the decades-old TV series “Kangxi’s Travels,” and “I Am a Special Troops Soldier,” a patriotism-themed series about life in the military.

Bilibili’s traffic is driven primarily by an under-30 demographic. An especially popular feature of the site is users’ ability to add comments that scroll across the screen for others to see.

“It is likely that an administrative hand is behind this,” said intellectual property lawyer Zhao Zhanling, but added that it is unclear whether regulators’ concerns were related to copyrights or content.

Many of the site’s videos are uploaded by users, who share popular videos to enjoy a cut of advertising revenues.

“The platform cannot just shift blame and plead ignorance over murky licensing simply because they were uploaded by users,” said Gao Tianle, a partner at Beijing-based Findto Patent Law Office. “With the huge traffic they have, they are obligated to take responsibility if they don’t own the rights.”

“The site’s licensing agreements are not always solid,” said Zhao, the lawyer. “But it doesn’t look like they are doing this out of pressure from rights holders because there are just too many shows that have been affected, many of them not even that popular.”

“Instead, the national copyright administration could have ordered the site to clean up across the board,” he said.

This would make sense because although most full-length shows are no longer available, trailers, clips, and related talk shows that do not infringe on copyrights can still be accessed.

Alternatively, Zhao says, it may be related to state broadcasters’ tightening the reins over the importing of foreign films, which only a handful of state-run distribution companies are authorized to do.

Yet another possibility is that this is part of a larger crackdown on video content and the media. Late last month, China’s broadcast regulator barred several online portals from streaming video content — including Sina Weibo, news site ifeng.com and popular Bilibili-like video service AcFun. This was followed by an online video industry association’s pledge to censor itself, removing scenes with homosexuality and torture.

Last week, China's television and radio authority ordered state broadcasters to air nationalism-tinged publicity programs after 8 p.m., prescribing a list of six items related to the 90th anniversary of the People’s Liberation Army, ahead of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party.

“I think political concerns are behind the deletion,” said a legal expert who declined to be named. “From shutting down Green VPN” — a tool allowing Chinese internet users to access banned websites — “to cracking down on publishers on WeChat, the pattern is evident.”

Contact reporter April Ma (fangjingma@caixin.com)

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