Chinese audiences accustomed to watching free TV shows on their phones and tablets are now paying for VIP packages to watch a popular Korean drama online.
The provider of the online stream is offering VIP members priority viewing of the latest episodes.
"Descendants of the Sun" is a record-breaking 16-episode rom-com broadcast on Korean channel KBS2. It dominates the Wednesday-Thursday evening slot and was watched by a staggering 31.6 percent of the Korean audience on Thursday.
Exclusive rights to stream the show in China are owned by iQiyi. In December of last year, iQiyi had 10 million paying users. Zhang Yuxin, an intellectual property rights (IPR) manager at the provider, claims more than 1.2 billion views on the series since it premiered on Feb 24. The company's VIP package is ad-free and broadcast at the same time as the TV version in Korea, two episodes ahead of free users.
The exact increase in subscriptions is not yet available and the drama will not conclude until the middle of April, but iQiyi estimates that at least 3 million new VIP users have signed up to watch. With annual membership priced at 198 yuan ($30), this could represent as much as more than half a billion yuan in revenue.
Set in the fictional war-torn Republic of Uruk, Song Joong-ki plays a dashing captain in the army alongside Song Hye-kyo, a beautiful volunteer doctor. Their love grows week by week as they battle earthquakes and epidemics, massacres and mayhem together.
Zhang Xinyi, 21, a student at Wuhan University is a big fan. What appeals to her most about the series is that in traditional TV dramas, the heroine is almost invariably subservient to the leading male character, but "Descendants of the Sun" steps away from such stereotypes and depicts a relationship of equals. Both main characters are excellent in their field; both have strong, independent minds; and both are highly regarded by their peers.
Zhang paid 19.8 yuan for a one-month membership just to watch the series and has joined the swelling ranks of Song Joong-ki's Chinese followers. "I have heard he may come to Wuhan. If he does, I will try to see him at the airport or at his hotel," she said.
"Descendants of the Sun" is not the first drama to bring a sharp rise in paying viewers.
Last July, the Chinese series "Grave Robbers' Chronicles," based on a best-selling series of young-adult novels, attracted 1 million new VIP members to iQiyi. In that case, VIPs were allowed immediate access to all episodes, rather than the regular updates provided to free users.
Other online players, such as LeTV and Youku, have begun to offer a range VIP memberships alongside their free services. At Youku, for example, free users can watch the first two episodes of "Yong Pal," another popular Korean TV series, but only VIP users can watch the remaining 16. LeTV allowed free users to watch the whole of its latest cliffhanger drama, except the final installment, which was only available to those prepared to pay.
According to last year's white paper on individual paying members of online streams in China by consulting firm iResearch, the China Internet Network Information Center and iQiyi, the number of people prepared to pay up front for what they watch is rising steeply, described in the paper as "the beginning of a new era" in China's viewing habits. The amount paid for such services has jumped from 210 million yuan in 2014 to 590 million in 2015.
"We took four years to find the first 5 million VIP users, but only five and half months to see another 5 million," said Zhang.
Yin Hong, director of the center for film and television at Tsinghua University, said the changes to the membership market reflected a greater emphasis in China on protection of intellectual property rights.
"Paying to view adds value to the value of the intellectual property and the member gets higher quality video sources, It really is a win-win situation," he said. Online stream providers are now competing fiercely for exclusive rights to mainstream TV drama.
While some drama-addicts are happy to pay for their high quality fix, many are looking for loopholes. In some cases, multiple users may share one common VIP account and so selling ID codes and passwords online has become widespread. These kind of transactions are currently a gray legislative area. If the win-win expansion of TV is to continue, Yin believes the government must act to better protect the interests of IPR holders.