TVB faces dilemma in airing mainland TV drama

June 06, 2016 17:21
Hu Ge (right) plays Mei Changsu in Nirvana in Fire. Photo: internet

Television Broadcasts Ltd. (00511.HK) has been airing the hit mainland Chinese television drama Nirvana in Fire (琅琊榜) in the 9:30 p.m. primetime slot since last month.

Audience ratings have suffered a free fall to a record low of 16.

It’s rumored that TVB might suspend the drama from its free-to-air programming.

However, the drama has become a hit on TVB’s online broadcasting platform.

Nirvana in Fire is a 2015 historical drama based on Hai Yan’s novel, starring Hu Ge as Mei Changsu and Wang Kai as Prince Jing.

It is the story of Lin Shu, who uses the alias Mei Changsu, to seekjustice for his family, which was framed 12 years earlier. Lin also helps his childhood friend ascend to the throne.

The 54-episode series has quickly become a hot item in the mainland since its debut in September last year. Viewers in Greater China have fallen in love with the characters.

The series has even beaten popular Korean dramas like Descendants of the Sun and My Love From the Star.

Nirvana in Fire is considered a masterpiece of Chinese TV drama.

Its cinematography is breathtaking, and its set design and costume design are exquisite.

The drama also pays a lot of attention to detail and portrays the etiquette of the time period authentically.

There are many different interpretations of the TV series.

Some say it refers to the June 4 crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989, while some believe it refers to Lin Biao, a close aide of chairman Mao Zedong who died in a plane crash in Mongolia.

The well-designed plot, involving political maneuvering, is intriguing, and some say it serves as a textbook for office politics.

Women viewers are crazy about the handsome characters, and the male audience is wooed by its plot.

Even people born after 1990 who claim to be Hong Kong localists have stayed up all night to watch the mainland-made show.

As a result, TVB decided to purchase the TV series and schedule it in primetime to lure a bigger audience.

However, the show has failed to attract a lot of interest, and the ratings have kept falling.

Some middle-aged women have complained the drama is too boring and hard to understand.

This is not the first time TVB has invested in a popular mainland TV drama.

For example, Wu Xin: The Monster Killer and Wu Zetian were received quite well in the past.

Unlike those dramas, Nirvana in Fire is dominated by male characters, and there is no obvious love story in the show.

Also, Nirvana in Fire does develop very slowly in the first few episodes, so as to establish the plot.

Much of the plot is very subtle or may require reading between the lines, as compared with the too obvious acting and scripts of most TVB shows.

It may be difficult for the mainstream audience to adapt to the show.

More importantly, most young people in the audience have already viewed the series online since September.

TVB has waited too long to broadcast it, and most of them prefer to view the episodes online instead of waiting for the set time slot.

Nirvana in Fire has registered more than 700,000 hits and become the top viewed drama on, the official online platform of TVB.

Hong Kong's TV audience is divided into two groups, one loyal to their TV sets and the other preferring to view shows online.

The first group have been faithful viewers of TVB for decades, and they can’t easily accept something different from the typical TVB dramas.

By contrast, the second group, mainly a younger audience, are more attracted to TV series from the United States, Japan and South Korea and have little interest in traditional TVB dramas.

As a result, TVB is facing a dilemma as to which group it should cater to.

The traditional group of viewers is key for the broadcaster's advertising revenue.

But the younger audience represents the future.

TVB may need to figure out a way to please both groups and work on its on-air and online channels.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 6.

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist