If you were to tell a young anime fan in China that Bilibili was a great place to watch documentaries, they would probably think you were crazy, as the Chinese video sharing platform became the giant it is today by being a home for ACG (anime, comics and games) content.
File photos: VCG
When it comes to documentaries, many people think of them as educational films or series that are too dry and serious to keep viewers' attention. Similar to classical music, documentaries are often considered by young people to be for the "old, educated and wealthy."
But perhaps this stereotype needs some updating. In this age of information explosion and diversified aesthetics, anything is possible.
Forbidden City to street food
"We are not the largest or top streaming platform in China. Youku, iQiyi and Tencent Video are bigger than us, but we are determined to be unique," Zhu Xianliang, a senior advisor at Bilibili's documentary department, told the Paper on Tuesday.
Bilibili first set out to bring its unique style to documentaries a little more than two years ago. In 2016, a three-episode documentary Masters in Forbidden City, which failed to find an audience when it aired on traditional broadcast station CCTV9, received a very warm welcome from Bilibili users, earning nearly 4.1 million views.
With this success under its belt, Bilibili started to focus more of its resources on documentaries. In December 2017, Bilibili announced that it was starting a new project that aimed to seek out and provide all-round support to documentary creators so they could provide the platform with high-quality documentaries for their user base.
In addition to these original productions, Bilibili also began cooperating with big name studios as well.
For example, in September the Discovery Channel began providing Bilibili with documentary series equal to hundreds of hours of programming content. Currently, users on the platform can watch documentaries produced by media giants like CCTV, BBC, and NHK.
Streaming a total of 2,194 documentaries, Bilibili is now a portal for learning about everything from history and technology to the behavior of animals in their natural environment. The most-watched Chinese documentary series, a culinary show called Rensheng Yichuan (Life on Skewers), has nearly 42 million views.
"Every documentary becomes special when it is broadcast on Bilibili," Zhu said.
The platform's secret weapon is its danmu, or "bullet comments." This danmu system allows viewers to post their thoughts as moving subtitles that fly across the screen and can be seen to all viewers in real-time, offering a sense of community in which viewers feel like they are chatting together with other viewers. When it comes to documentaries, this helps keep young viewers engaged since as they watch a show they are also busy communicating, joking and sharing knowledge with others.
This kind of participation is what Zhu calls "secondary creation, or collective creation."
"They [users] remake our documentaries along with us. That is the most unique part of Bilibili," he noted.
The system is also very lucrative for the company. Users can spend money to buy different danmu fonts to make their comment stays longer than others or purchase different colors to make them more appealing to the eye.
The 'confident generation'
The highly active internet users in China tend to skew young - most were born during the era of Web 2.0. The users on Bilibili are no exception. According to Chen Rui, CEO of Bilibili, the majority of the platform's users are under the age of 30. He likes to refer to them as the "confident generation."
Zhu attributed Bilibili's success with documentaries to the platform's users. This young "confident generation" is well-educated and willing to spend time learning. Additionally, since they were born after China's reform and opening-up, they grew up in a more developed and wealthier era and so do not mind paying to watch documentaries. Moreover, they have a better taste when it comes to art and culture as they are curious about the world.
Docu China, One Hour Life and Vice are competitive documentary platforms as well, but they are not as popular among younger viewers. In addition to the format in which documentaries are streamed on the platform, another important factor behind Bilibili's documentary success is that this type of programming helps young viewers deal with some of the confusion they are dealing with in life. Many documentaries depict people's attitudes toward life and show how to cope with and accept life's ups and downs.
"The story is about ordinary life. Indeed, the show is about barbecue shops, but we are not trying to get people to eat more barbecue. What we want to show is how ordinary people get along with their everyday lives. As you can see, there's nothing negative about it," Zhu explained, pointing to food documentary Life on Skewers as an example.