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Friends is coming back to China. Photo: NBC/TNS

Can hit 1990s US sitcom Friends rescue China’s struggling video-streamers from a short video beating in 2022?

  • The hit 10-season show, which first aired on NBC between 1994 and 2004, will be released in China this Friday
  • Move comes as China’s video-streaming platforms struggle to attract users amid the rising popularity of short video-sharing apps

Major video streaming companies including iQiyi, Tencent Video, Youku and Bilibili will officially broadcast American television sitcom Friends in China, as the platforms compete for eyeballs with short video services.

The hit 10-season show, which first aired on NBC between 1994 and 2004, will be released in China this Friday and be rolled out at one season per week, the companies all announced on their official Weibo accounts. They did not disclose any pricing at this stage.

The move comes as China’s video-streaming platforms struggle to attract users amid the rising popularity of short video-sharing apps such as ByteDance’s Douyin, the Chinese sister app of TikTok, and Kuaishou Technology, which appeal to netizens with short attention spans. China’s rigid censorship laws also make it impossible for video streamers to import new hits such as South Korean drama Squid Game, produced by Netflix.

At stake is China’s multibillion-dollar video-streaming industry, which had 944 million users as of June last year, according to the state-run China Internet Network Information Center. The average daily usage time of short video apps was 125 minutes in March 2021, 27 minutes longer than the time spent on traditional long-form videos, according to research firm Questmobile.

Fight for the short attention span heats up among China’s video apps

iQiyi, Youku and Tencent Video last year attacked short video platforms for profiting from copyright infringement, saying that user-generated movie and TV clips were hurting their business, which relies on exclusive video content to attract subscribers. China’s National Copyright Administration said last April that it would intensify its scrutiny and rectify any such copyright infringements, following a public call by film and television producers to end these practices.

In December, iQiyi started a wave of lay-offs, trimming more than 30 per cent of jobs at high-expense departments, such as marketing and distribution, according to reports by Chinese media Yicai and news portal Sina.

The official return of Friends in China shows the enduring appeal of the comedy despite rising tensions between Beijing and Washington in recent years and signals that Chinese authorities do not view the content as subversive. The show has proven popular with Chinese viewers over the years, many of whom have watched pirated copies of the show.

The unauthorised streaming of Friends on Chinese video sites has also created a huge fan base among the country’s urban youth. The US sitcom first became popular in China as an English-language learning tool in the 1990s, when the Chinese government introduced economic reforms and encouraged exchanges with the West.

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In 2015, China’s National Radio and Television Administration demanded that all foreign series be registered and obtain a licence number before being broadcast, slowing down the release of shows with many episodes. Sohu Video made Friends available on its platform in China in 2012, but the rights expired in 2018. Sohu is also among the video streamers to win the rights to broadcast the show this time.

In May last year, platforms including iQiyi, Tencent Video and Youku all received licences to broadcast a special episode of Friends: The Reunion. iQiyi is owned by Baidu while Youku is owned by Alibaba Group Holding, which also owns the South China Morning Post. The episode was censored though, with cameo appearances by Lady Gaga, Korean boy band BTS and Justin Bieber removed.

The special episode also sparked a fight among streamers after “uploaders” rushed to republish the reunion on Bilibili, the video-sharing and streaming platform. Once regarded as a “good deed” on the Chinese internet, the practice is now unacceptable for sites that have actually paid to air the show.

It is not clear if all the Friends episodes will be broadcast without cuts. Tencent Video, a unit of internet giant Tencent Holdings, received public criticism for removing Game of Thrones scenes featuring nudity. Fans were particularly annoyed when Tencent delayed the release of the series finale due to a “technical issue”, a term often used when censorship is involved.