Video streamer iQIYI cancels a season finale over milk waste controversy

Business & Technology

Fan groups of contestants in a reality talent show bulk bought milk bottles with caps that gave them extra votes for their idols. The government is crying over the spilt milk.

Video of fans dumping milk into a ditch on CCTV

On Sunday, iQIYI, a Nasdaq-listed video streaming platform similar to Netflix, canceled (in Chinese) the season finale of one of its flagship reality TV shows over a controversy involving milk.

The iQIYI-hosted Youth With You 3 is a male idol group contest whose finale originally scheduled for Saturday night. But after a video (in Chinese) surfaced in which fans of the show were dumping milk into ditches, the local Beijing media regulator ordered (in Chinese) the show’s early termination.

As part of its marketing strategy, the boy-band reality show allows fans to gain extra votes by scanning QR codes on the milk caps of Mengniu Dairy, the show’s official sponsor. So fan groups bought Mengniu milk in bulk for the caps but ended up pouring out the milk once they had cast their votes.

The video was widely criticized by state media before the show was suspended: State news agency Xinhua published an article (in Chinese) accusing the showrunners of “profiteering off waste,” “disrespecting labor,” and “desecrating the law.” CCTV published a piece (in Chinese) blaming the marketing strategy for the incident.

On May 5, the official account of iQIYI’s Youth With You 3 acknowledged the suspension order (in Chinese), vowing to “sincerely accept and resolutely obey” (a common platitude used by Chinese businesses when replying to government sanctions). The following day, iQIYI issued another statement stressing its “firm opposition to all forms of food waste.” The sponsor Mengniu Dairy apologized the day after.

iQIYI’s milk fiasco comes in the midst of a government crackdown on food waste. Just before the Labor holiday, on April 29, the National People’s Congress, China’s top decision-making body, passed a food-waste bill (in Chinese) to encourage restaurants and businesses to cultivate “good habits around waste prevention.”

Chaotic fan groups and reckless profiteering

But the incident also reignited a public debate on a wider issue: how far fan groups are willing to go to showcase their idolatry on the internet. In the past few years, China’s fan groups have engaged in a host of harmful activities to inflate their idol’s reputation and desecrate rivals. They include harassment campaigns against other rival fan groups, spending exorbitant amounts of money to boost an idol’s popularity, and even donating to charities in their idol’s name.

On May 8, the State Council Information Office held a press conference (in Chinese) with China’s top regulatory watchdogs including the Cyber Administration of China (CAC), which already began a campaign to address the issue last year.

A senior official from the top cybersecurity watchdog said he would focus on “standardizing” the behavior of “chaotic fan groups.” The milk dumping incident, he said, was an example of reckless profiteering, along with the “erosion” of youths who were sucked into a “limitless” fan culture.

The Baidu-backed iQIYI is one of the largest video streaming sites in the world. Founded in 2010, it now boasts 500 million monthly active users. Share prices dipped 7.2% last week in light of the milk scandal.

But the Netflix-like streaming service is no stranger to market volatility. Since its IPO in 2018, notable short sellers have accused the company of inflating its revenues. In August 2020, iQIYI revealed it was being investigated by the Security and Exchange Commission as part of a wider investigation into U.S.-listed Chinese firms following the Luckin Scandal.