As years passed market forces joined Communist propaganda chiefs as a second boss.
Early shows were dominated by male characters and mostly watched by men.
Today's TV drama audience is 70-80% female and mainly from smaller cities, says Lei Ming of ABD Entertainment, an audience-analysis firm.
Viewers typically watch on smartphones, he adds.
Their favourite part about the show is talking it over afterwards with friends.
The leading man in "Yanxi Palace", Qianlong, is something of a cipher: a stern autocrat who finds his harem a chore.
Chinese pundits have debated whether the show is a feminist tale about strong women, or a retrograde saga about women who survive by obeying and pleasing bossy men.
It is both.
It is a reflection of the country today, a chauvinist place full of strong women.
In a fast-rising China, life is hard and filled with obstacles and anxiety, says Wang Xiaohui, chief content officer at iQiyi, the Netflix-like entertainment company behind "Yanxi Palace".
Mr Wang describes today's main melody.
The masses (and the party) like stories in which subordinates are loyal, kindness is rewarded and wickedness punished, and in which young people who work hard can succeed.
Mr Wang hails the women in his drama for an "independent spirit" that resonates with viewers.
Outsiders may note that such spirits do not always seek to reform or change a society.
Getting ahead can be enough.
A recurring theme of "Yanxi Palace" is that the Forbidden City is a place of harsh rules, but that rules keep chaos at bay.
Such obedient resignation suits China's modern rulers well.
With 15bn cumulative downloads, this will not be the last of its kind.