Ji Hongchen webcasts himself hiking on July 21 (COURTESY OF JI HONGCHEN)
Singing, dancing or chatting with the audience in front of a mobile phone is all that is required to make a decent monthly income nowadays. This occupation, unheard of only two decades ago, is an emerging profession known as Web hosting.
Ji Hongchen, a 27-year-old from east China's Shandong Province, is one of the so-called Web hosts. His daily routine involves broadcasting himself hiking across China on Imeme.tv, a live-streaming website, from when he gets up to when he falls asleep in his tent.
He began webcasting several months ago, recording himself cycling across several provinces before transitioning to hiking. "I like outdoor sports and want to share my experiences with more people," said Ji.
"Compared with TV programs which are becoming increasingly mundane today, webcasting represents an emerging industry and has bright prospects," he added.
Ji attracts nearly 20,000 viewers during broadcasting and made over 6,000 yuan ($898) in June. Web hosts earn an income by receiving virtual gifts such as houses, cars and flowers from viewers, which can be exchanged for money on live-streaming sites. Besides virtual gifts, they also earn through conducting e-commerce, selling advertising space or receiving digital cash directly from fans. If the income remains satisfactory, Ji said he will make this his long-term profession.
If Web hosts have signed up to an agency, revenue from webcasting will be distributed between hosts, live-streaming sites and the agency. If not, the income will be divided between just two parties, hosts and live-streaming sites.
Ji is only one of many who have dabbled in webcasting. In China, both celebrities and ordinary citizens are engaging in the practice. For instance, real estate tycoon Wang Jianlin broadcast himself playing poker on his private jet, and film star Fan Bingbing showed herself participating in Paris Fashion Week.
Jiang Yilei, who goes by the online moniker "Papi Jiang," is currently one of the most famous Internet celebrities in China. She made a name for herself by uploading videos of comedic monologues on Weibo, a Twitter-like online platform. Jiang staged her first live show on July 11, lasting nearly 90 minutes, on eight websites simultaneously, drawing over 20 million viewers and receiving virtual gifts worth an estimated 900,000 yuan ($130,000). The burgeoning sector has attracted large investment, such as the 12 million yuan ($1.8 million) Jiang received in venture capital in March.
According to market research firm iiMedia, there were nearly 200 live-streaming websites in China's 9-billion-yuan ($1.3 billion) webcasting market, with the number of users reaching 200 million.
A report on Internet celebrities by CBNData, a Shanghai-based enterprise data aggregator, suggested the total value of China's Internet celebrity industry is projected to reach 58 billion yuan ($8.7 billion) this year, far surpassing China's box office revenue of 44 billion yuan ($6.6 billion) last year.
There are a multitude of topics for webcasting, from dancing and singing performances to outdoor sports, video games and large events such as concerts.
A Web hostess nicknamed "Yan baby" on Huajiao.com, who casually took up webcasting, never imagined she would attract over 100,000 fans. The holder of an English degree from Henan Normal University, Yan baby saw her classmates webcasting on the website upon graduation. Curiosity persuaded her to have a try.
"In the beginning, it was a little dull. I just spoke to the camera and cracked some jokes. There were few viewers," she told Beijing Morning Post. Then she began to dance. Her pretty complexion and eloquent speaking style, combined with her dancing prowess, soon brought legions of fans.
Webcasting has given her fame and a decent income. However, what she truly values is self-improvement. For instance, encouraged by her fans, she is learning to play the guitar. "There are so many good-looking girls on the platform. Therefore, it is one's knowledge and thinking that can draw fans," she reasoned.
Web hostesses broadcast a mountain sports festival in Zhumadian, Henan Province, on April 16 (CFP)
As webcasting gains popularity, hosts driven by a desire to make quick money have resorted to unethical practices such as airing pornographic and violent content. Some hosts dance or sing in revealing clothes to attract more attention. In January, a host on Douyu.com broadcast himself having sex with a woman for two minutes.
In order to regulate the online broadcasting market, the Ministry of Culture has recently launched a campaign against malpractices, focusing on Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Hubei and Guangdong. Over 4,000 live feeds were closed, and more than 15,000 virtual live-feed rooms were ordered to rectify their practices.
Broadcasts involving pornography, violence or the inculcation of crime were the focus of the recent crackdown. Live-streaming platforms such as Douyu.com, Panda.tv and 6.cn were penalized for spreading sexually charged, violent and crime-inducing information.
In early July, the Ministry of Culture published a notice on enhancing the supervision of online performances, with regular spot checks to be carried out. If performers are blacklisted for broadcasting illegal content, they will be prohibited from performing.
"This will help regulate the webcasting sector. However, a real-name registration system should be introduced in the first place to implement the blacklist approach," said Zhu Wei, Deputy Director of the Communication Law Research Center at China University of Political Science and Law.
A consensus is forming that live-streaming sites will become one of the primary social networking platforms of the future. Various industries are cooperating with such sites for commercial reasons. For example, Chinese online travel agency Tuniu has partnered with live-streaming sites to broadcast Hong Kong actor Wong Cho Lam's wedding in the Maldives.
Zhou Hongyi, CEO of Qihoo 360 Technology, a Chinese Internet security company, said webcasting will become applicable to an increasingly wide range of sectors. For instance, it will be used more and more in online education, cooking and travel.
"I think webcasting will replace many current industries such as TV. Streaming websites have enabled people to watch TV programs any time they want, and mobile phones and tablets have made it possible to watch them anywhere, either in bed, in the car or on the plane," Zhou said. "Webcasting is more interactive and creates programs which are entirely different from the one-dimensional TV."
"Web hosts have the potential to become a new generation of Internet celebrities and will accelerate the downfall of the traditional TV industry," he predicted.
Copyedited by Dominic James Madar
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