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    As Viewers Fret, China Vows to Streamline Fees for OTT Content

    In recent months, netizens have voiced frustration about subscribing to multiple video streaming platforms with overlapping content and additional fees for mobile subscriptions.

    Amid growing public frustration over confusing fees and difficulty accessing streaming content on smart TVs, Chinese authorities are launching a campaign to enhance users’ viewing experience.  

    Government officials announced Monday that the campaign, set to launch by the end of the year, would tackle unfair fees associated with TV content. The move will allow users to access TV channels without advertisements as soon as they power on their cable or Internet Protocol TV.

    In recent months, along with the shortage of free content, users have raised significant concerns over hidden charges, as well as the layers of chaotic and exorbitant fee structures used by service providers. 

    On social media, thousands of users have also expressed frustration at the need to subscribe to multiple video streaming platforms, often with overlapping content. Others have criticized not only multiple paywalls for different types of content within a single service, but also the extra fees charged for viewing content on TV, on top of subscriptions to services for mobile devices.

    Before the rise of smart TVs, the majority of Chinese viewers relied on broadband to watch TV. This limited them to real-time broadcasts from state-run channels and a few select online programs. 

    But in recent years, the adoption of smart TVs has surged to almost 60% of Chinese households — well above the global average of 32%. This shift has allowed viewers greater access to a wider range of programs through video streaming apps, capitalizing on the growing market for premium content subscriptions.

    The rapid growth has made smart TVs a prime choice for advertisers. According to a 2021 report by Quest Mobile, advertising on smart TVs has outpaced desktop ads in terms of market share. This trend is expected to contribute to about 10% of the online advertising market in 2023.

    The uptick in advertisements, however, has led to a surge in public dissatisfaction. Many users are unhappy with the growing number of ads on platforms and have voiced concerns about newly introduced paywalls that restrict their previous free access to content. 

    A survey conducted in June revealed that 85% of respondents could only access a limited amount of free content without subscribing to a streaming service. The survey found that such free content was buried within the service on some platforms, making it difficult to find. 

    “Watching anything on TV now requires a membership,” a viewer said in a viral post that garnered more than 4,000 replies and 11,000 likes on the lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu. “What was supposed to be meant for relaxation and entertainment has now become an infuriating gimmick.”

    The situation escalated earlier this year when a wave of complaints reached its peak. 

    Numerous social media influencers publicly criticized streaming platforms for their high fees and demanded that authorities step in to address these issues. In response to the growing public backlash, the state-run People’s Daily published three commentaries in the same month in which they characterized the practice as “a gamble of repeatedly exploiting consumers.”

    Chen Yinjiang, a senior legal expert from the China Law Society, told domestic media that hidden charges and the unfair agreements connected to them violate consumer rights. He pointed out that while the confusion is a result of businesses pursuing greater profits through improper practices, the absence of regulation has compounded the issue.

    Part of the public backlash also revolves around the challenges these intricate content services pose for China’s growing elderly population. Critics have accused product makers of prioritizing profits from advertising over user experience. 

    A 2022 industrial report revealed that though over 80% of surveyed seniors used smart televisions, nearly half of them couldn’t immediately access TV programs upon turning on their device.

    Editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: 500px/VCG)