Monkey business in China's Web talk shows
TECHNOLOGY works wonders. A generation ago, who would have thought that anyone could launch a talk show and win millions of viewers?
A television format had to go through a rigorous vetting process - and tonnes of money in investment - before it could be aired on the tube, and it still must. But now, all you need is a computer with a camera, or even a regular mobile phone with Internet connection.
But what would one do if he could potentially talk to the whole world? It turns out sex sells - much more than simple talk. Many online talk shows have morphed into live striptease, or even worse.
In the wee hours of Jan 10, a chatroom on Douyutv put out a live feed of its male host having sex with a woman. It attracted thousands of viewers. In-house vigilantes shut it down within minutes and the police were alerted. An investigation is ongoing.
Like many people who use WeChat and Weibo for most functions, I was totally oblivious of the tidal wave of so-called Internet live broadcast until very recently, which are chatrooms with live video operated by individuals and hosted mostly by game sites.
It is an offshoot of online gaming, which I knew has a market size three times that of China's film market in revenue but has never attracted the equivalent media attention.
The chatrooms are forecast to have 100 million unique users each month for this year, which probably puts them on a par with the popularity of television in its early days.
Unlike movies or television shows, anyone can be a star - well, as long as you are endowed with good looks. The most popular rooms all belong to game sites so hosts are supposed to talk about the games or even simulcast their plays. But, gradually, appearance becomes the main attraction.
Meanwhile, in a field where hundreds of thousands of similar rooms are competing, the urge to break the rules is almost irresistible.
And look at the revenue model.
There is no charge for admission like cinemas, no subscription system like premium cable channels.
The model does not solely rely on advertising. Much of the money comes from viewers who send the hosts "gifts" in the form of virtual flowers or tokens they can purchase from the websites with real money.
On one website, a token is called a "rocket" and costs 500 yuan (S$109) each. Some wealthy users send dozens to a hostess they root for. There are tales of "bidding wars" when as much as a million yuan is spent in one chatroom on a given night.
The money is split three ways. The platform (website) gets 40 per cent, the hostess (most are young women) gets 45 per cent and the rest goes to the agency that recruits, trains and manages them.
In the hierarchy of this business, the vast majority of hosts take home 5,000 to 15,000 yuan a month while those at the top can earn up to a million.
Longzhu.com made headlines when it signed Han Yiying, a 27-year-old game player with the online handle MISS, for a 20-million-a-year contract.
A chatroom can be a room - many low-end hostesses are put up by their agents in cheap hotels and work much like a telephone service centre - but it can also be anywhere.
Ding Yao, who has 480,000 followers, aired her attendance at a comedy show during which she was warned by the theatre for infringing on the comedian's copyright. Her highest-rated moment came when she tried on a bevy of newly bought fashion wear from South Korea, attracting 600,000 simultaneous viewers, according to Thepaper.cn.
Late last year, a host on Douyutv.com showed himself driving a luxury car, accidentally causing a traffic accident that injured two people. Another one rented a drone to peep into a college girls' dormitory.
One male host on Zhanqi.tv has made a speciality out of eating gross stuff like rats and spiders raw.
And a female host - supposedly with 600,000 followers - aired herself cutting her wrist, instantly drawing 450,000 viewers.
I say "supposedly" because the numbers displayed on the screen can be easily manipulated.
The platforms may inflate them - sometimes by 10 times - to make someone look more popular than she actually is.
The same goes for the "bidding" when one party throwing tonnes of bouquets could be the platform's bait to entice real bidders to spend real money.
Chinese laws tolerate titillation but outright sex? That will incur the wrath of the authorities.
A friend of mine who partners one of the big platforms told me that a hostess can actually make much more money if she is willing to "meet up" with those who bought her virtual rockets or flowers.
It has nothing to do with the website, he says, which nominally forbids sex for money.
Admittedly, the websites have employees policing the chatrooms. But how can a staff of a dozen be effective in monitoring all the monkey business going on in hundreds of thousands of rooms?
So they use filter words such as "sex", which spawns countless euphemisms.
Their software is able to catch suspicious behaviour through the analysis of graphics, they claim.
And the red light goes on whenever there is a sudden spike in viewership to one room.
All this reminds me of the dichotomy in China's magazine market. Metropolitan residents would never know this until they go to a bus station in a county-level city where magazine stalls have none of the glossy titles ubiquitous in big cities.
Instead, most titles are priced below three yuan and feature such headlines as "Woman's headless body found floating in local river".
Chatrooms are said to cater to that demographic, which is huge but below the radar.
If belated regulation of other online activities is any guide, there will be a crackdown down the road, and chatroom hosts may have to be vetted by government entities rather than agents who pressure them to "accidentally" drop whatever scanty thing they are wearing.
Chen Mengwei contributed to this story.
CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK