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Why have micro-dramas become so popular?

By Sun Jiashan | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-29 06:28
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Jin Ding/China Daily

Recent years have seen the increasing popularity of micro-dramas, defined by the National Radio and Television Administration as web series with episodes not exceeding 10 minutes.

The short episodes, often lasting only a few minutes, some even less than 60 seconds, are mostly distributed through online platforms like WeChat mini-programs and social media. Compared with nonlinear or even traditional linear storytelling, micro-dramas have clear themes and storylines, and a combination of chronological and reverse narrative styles. With fast-paced, concentrated drama, such types of series have been captivating audiences, leading to a surge in their popularity.

According to a report by iiMediaResearch, the Chinese micro-drama market is likely to grow to 37.39 billion yuan (more than $5.2 billion) in 2023, up a staggering 267.65 percent year-on-year — and projected to exceed 100 billion yuan by 2027. In the third quarter of 2023 alone, 150 micro-dramas, nearly double the total for the whole of 2022, were released.

Lightweight micro-dramas have enlivened the domestic film and television industry. Productions like Unrivaled surpassed 100 million yuan in revenue within eight days, while Night Shift Diary exceeded 1 billion views. Please, Don't Spoil Me, released on Tencent Video, surpassed 30 million yuan in revenue, and the three-episode series Escape from the British Museum trended on Weibo for a long time.

In particular, Escape from the British Museum, despite having only three episodes less than 20 minutes long, was one of the most talked-about series of the year. The story, narrated through personified objects, follows a Chinese porcelain pot escaping the British Museum, meeting a Chinese journalist abroad, and seeking help to return home.

Micro-dramas that emphasize narrative depth and intricate structure have great potential to engage audiences and preserve traditional culture. For example, the micro-drama I'm a Peking Opera Actor, combines classic Peking Opera with a modern storyline, immerses viewers in a fusion of old Beijing's alley culture, the capital's unique cuisine, and Peking Opera artistry.

Over the past decade, the rapid development of mobile internet in China has led to the evolution of various forms of entertainment and commerce, including mobile games, livestreaming and short videos.

As a contemporary manifestation of entertainment or art form, micro-dramas have some distinct advantages. As a popular form of artistic expression, they have integrated some elements of online literature and livestreamed short videos in a small framework.

The brevity of micro-dramas allows audiences to enjoy the episodes without wasting much energy and time, leading to a pleasurable viewing experience. Their easy accessibility contributes to their widespread acceptance, from public transportation to elevators, enhancing the fluid reception of popular artistic content.

The success of micro-dramas has broken down barriers between short dramas and traditional films and TV series, prompting increased investment from platforms. As a result, platforms such as Douyin, Tencent Video, iQiyi, Mango TV, as well as production companies have entered the micro-drama arena.

However, micro-dramas are not problem-free. Their problems are related to content, including violence, emotional manipulation and other unhealthy tendencies, all in pursuit of registering higher clicks and viewership. To ensure the high-quality growth of this industry, regulatory bodies need to strengthen content supervision, striking a balance between commercial interests and the overall well-being of the industry and development of artistic forms.

The future of micro-dramas lies in their mainstream and high-quality transformation, which also is crucial for their sustained growth within the broader landscape of mobile internet. And the industry's ability to achieve this balance will determine its future development course.

In just over a year since their rise, micro-dramas have exhibited different characteristics, including being "down-to-earth", depicting "power fantasy", and being "suggestive". Similar to early internet literature including domineering CEOs and power fantasy narratives, these themes attract more views and have less strict IP copyright regulations, as was prevalent in the early days of the industry.

However, micro-drama makers need to improve their content and seek better IPs, in order to enrich their development experience. They should realize that market demands cannot be met by relying solely on early web genres for content. Balancing social benefits and commercial interests is key to the industry's comprehensive development. The rapid rise and internationalization of micro-dramas, the rapid development of mobile internet in China, exemplify the continuous global impact of Chinese practices.

The author is an associate researcher at the Central Academy of Culture and Tourism Administration. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily.

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