Korean Drama: Making a Global Breakthrough

Squid game ETX

“Squid Game” was the second most-watched streaming series in the US in 2021. Image: ETX Daily Up/Netflix

Last month, Netflix released a list of the most streamed TV shows of all time.

“Squid Game”, which took the top spot with 1.65 billion hours, also took the top spot for the number of consecutive days in the world’s No. 1 ranking.

‘Squid Game”s global success is based not only on its quality and universal appeal, but also on streaming platforms like Netflix and other local shows that launched it, reaching audiences around the world It’s also based on what you did.

It seems that the entire Korean drama has left its mark on the global screen with ‘Squid Game’. More and more shows are now climbing to the top of the streaming charts, the latest being ‘Extraordinary Attendant Woo’, which surpassed Netflix’s latest global non-English TV rankings compiled July 25-31. I was.

A look at the history of K-Drama shows that this didn’t happen overnight.

For decades, Korean producers have been honing their craft and trying to reach a global audience. This was the forerunner of what later came to be known as Hallyu or Hallyu.

Before the 2010s and fledgling Hallyu

The 1990s was a period when the countries of the Far East began active cultural exchanges. South Korea, which lagged behind this trend, lifted the ban on Japanese pop culture in 1998.

This market opening was met at the time with concerns that Japanese imports would stifle local content, but the ensuing decade saw the rise of Korean dramas and music that engulfed much of Asia. I sowed the seeds of popularity.

Choi Gwang-shik, a professor of Korean history at Korea University, likens the Korean Wave to the cultural exchanges that took place between East and West over the Silk Road thousands of years ago.

“There is an impression that Korean culture is closed (to the outside world), but this is mainly from the Joseon Dynasty, which was based on a policy of national isolation. , has evolved in creative ways,” he said at a recent lecture in Seoul. he said.

Attempts to trace the origins of K-Drama’s success led to the popular TV series What is Love (1991). A news story at the time reported that the streets were empty when it aired. The MBC drama, which depicts a family centered on an authoritarian patriarch, recorded the highest viewer rating ever with an average viewer rating of 59.6%. The show’s popularity catapulted its cast to stardom, with star Lee Seung-jae being elected a member of parliament in 1992.

“What is Love” was the first Korean drama to be officially exported to China, airing on China Central Television in 1997. Some say the show was the first instance of Hallyu, years before the term was coined.

At the time, only the most sensational programs were able to reach overseas audiences through formal rights sales, but some did so without official contracts as a result of content piracy.

The first official use of the world’s Hallyu was in 1999, when the government promoted South Korea’s most popular music on a CD titled ‘Hallyu – Korean Songs’. For the next few years, Hallyu became the talk of the town in South Korea, and both experts and the media had high hopes for Korean cultural content.

For the next decade, in the early 2000s, the Hallyu wave really landed in Japan. Singer BoA ​​is the first Korean artist to undergo years of training for the entire Asian market, releasing her debut album in multiple languages ​​and is fluent in all languages. Such his K-pop trainee system later became the standard of K-pop.

But it was the blockbuster 2002 KBS drama “Winter Sonata,” starring Bae Yong-joon and Choi Ji-woo, that took Hallyu to the next level. Bae in particular became extremely popular among Japanese female viewers, earning her the nickname “Yon-sama”. Bae and Choi were famous names that even appeared in the popular Japanese manga “Crayon Shin-chan”.

Ironically, “Winter Sonata” was not the most popular drama in South Korea at the time, or even in 2002. That title belonged to SBS’s “Simple Age,” which aired in the second half of the year.

The SBS series, which depicts gangsters from the Japanese colonial era from 1910 to 1945 to the 1970s, was the only Korean drama to exceed 50% ratings for the entire year, peaking at 57.4%. It was unexpectedly popular in Mongolia, and the audience rating exceeded 80% at one point.

In 2009, local media reported that a Korean restaurant with the same name had opened in Mongolia. The store was decorated with pictures of the show’s star, Anne Gemo, and aired episodes of “Simple Age” 24/7.

Another internationally successful drama is 2008’s Seduction of Wife starring Jang So Hee. It is very popular, especially in China and Mongolia, and has led the actor to appear in several Chinese dramas. The SBS drama was a symbol of a new trend called ‘Makjang drama’. The drama featured extreme plot twists and controversial and sensational subjects such as betrayal, murder and infidelity.

Until the late 2000s, surpassing 50% viewership was an achievable feat. In 2010, the final episode of KBS ‘Bread, Love and Dreams’ had an audience rating of 50.8%.

As of at least 2022, this will be the last time a Korean drama has exceeded 50% viewership.

tide change

Cable TV channels have existed since before the 2010s, but due to size disparities, big-budget dramas have been dominated by three major TV stations: SBS, MBC, and KBS. Drama production costs billions of won, and fledgling cable stations in the 2000s didn’t have enough money.

However, a series of legislative changes in 2009 allowed major conglomerates and news companies to own shares in broadcasting companies, and in 2011 four general programming channels and one news network channel were born. You can spend big bucks on drama.

However, it is the existing drama that has become one of the biggest players in Korean dramas, with a string of successes such as 2012-2015’s ‘Reply’ series and 2016’s ‘Guardian: The Great Lonely God’. tvN, the cable network of Popularly known as “Goblin,” which is the Korean translation of its name, the show averaged 20.5 viewership ratings and peaked at 22.1%, making it the first cable TV program to exceed 20% ratings.

The most popular drama of the year, “Descendants of the Sun,” was produced by KBS, but it clearly shows that the big three are no longer the only ones dominating the drama.

Both “Goblin” and “Descendants” are exported to other parts of Asia, while “Goblin” is sold in more than a dozen regions including Hong Kong, Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, and parts of Europe and America. It aired. Its international success was not without its market in China, which banned Korean content due to tensions between China and South Korea at the time.

Timeline Korea Herald K-DRAMA

Image: The Korea Herald

“Descendants” was sold to China before the ban and was recorded as the most popular Korean drama in China at the time, and its remake aired in Taiwan and the Philippines.

The success of this year’s Special Lawyer Wu is further proof that even relatively unknown players in the K-Drama industry can produce global hits. The series was produced by cable channel ENA, whose previous ratings record was his 1.13%. “Woo” continues the success of Korean dramas on the platform by taking the top spot in his Netflix’s latest non-English global TV rankings, compiled from July 25-31.

Dafna Zur, associate professor of East Asian Languages ​​and Cultures at Stanford University, believes the success of Korean dramas lies in the unique characteristics that set them apart from other countries.

“Korean dramas strike a good balance between predictability and originality. They ignore and attack themselves.But they have a Korean twist,” Zur was quoted as saying in an interview. They care about their audience, and usually they only ask for 16 hours of our time.”

Global reach, new challenges

The emergence of streaming platforms like Netflix has been a game changer for Korean dramas in terms of guaranteeing international exposure from the outset, albeit only through certain membership-based platforms. This means that Korean dramas can have a huge impact on the world stage.

Earlier this year, “Squid Game” star Oh Young-soo became the first Korean to win a Golden Globe, while Lee Jeong-jae and Jung Ho-young became the first Koreans to win a Screen Actors Guild Award for television. The show is also the first foreign series to be nominated for this year’s Emmy Awards, which are scheduled for September.

However, aside from global recognition, it has been the subject of intense debate as to how much South Korea can benefit from the drama’s success abroad.

“Squid Game” has exploded in popularity around the world, but because the intellectual property rights belong to Netflix, the Korean producers, cast members, or others involved in the production It didn’t benefit people.

As K-Drama gained global reach, intellectual property rights emerged as a challenge to its continued success.

Last December, local production studios launched what they called the “Creator Alliance” and pledged to work to protect intellectual property. Instead of producing dramas through outsourcing for existing channels, the studio said it plans to set up a joint fund to address funding issues.

Traditionally, Korean dramas, like “Squid Game,” are funded by broadcasters and outsourced to local studios. Since the intellectual property rights for the series belong to the platform, they will receive most of the profits from the show, as they do for other K-Drama hits such as ‘Hellbound’ and ‘All of Us Are Dead’.

Last month, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism revealed a four-year plan to spend a total of 4.8 trillion won ($3.66 billion) to financially support the production of streaming content.

“Most of the revenue for ‘Squid Game’ is collected by Netflix, which holds intellectual property rights. not.

With Korean dramas in their heyday, it remains to be seen whether South Korea will be able to fully enjoy its success. JB

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