The Evolution of K-Drama industry

Korean dramas has been gaining a lot of hype these days, and being an ardent fan of it, I thought of making a blog about its popularity for a better understanding of the industry. I have tried to make it as detailed as possible, and have broken it down into various segments for easy reading.

How the Korean drama industry came into existence

The foundation of Korean drama started under the Japanese rule in 1927, in the format of Radio drama. Radio broadcasting of dramas was performed, where 70% of them were in Japanese and 30% were in Korean. The whole setup composed of voice actors, narrators, background musicians, and followed a format similar to current podcasts.

The television broadcasting began in 1956, with the foundation of an experimental station, HLKZ-TV which was later destroyed by fire. The first Korean television film ‘The Gate of Heaven’ (1961) was aired on this channel, but due to lack of television sets in the country, the movie did not gain recognition.

In 1961, came Korea’s First National Broadcasting channel, KBS which aired the First television drama, ‘Backstreet of Seoul’ in 1962. During this phase, historical (Sageuk) dramas gained more popularity.

Facts: During 1950s-1960s, many Koreans were depressed due to the war and these dramas became their stressbusters. The stories gave them a glimpse of hope for a better world, which was rare at that time.

How they were commercialized

In the 1970s, television sets started getting popular in South Korea and the Government thought it would be a better medium for influencing the country’s people about the culture. They gained control of the KBS company and started investing more in producing and promoting dramas. Due to the limited budget and audience, they decided to keep them low-budget, and the stories mainly revolved around the country’s historical figures, war sufferings, and contemporary romance to attract the youth.

Eventually, other broadcasting TV stations were created by the Government, the popular one’s being MBC in 1961 and SBS in 1990.

Facts: During the 1970s, the Seoul Police Department warned people to stay alert when popular dramas were being broadcasted, since a lot of burglaries were reported in those time slots.

Noteworthy K-dramas

The introduction of color television in the 1990s helped increase the viewership, create more broadcasting channels, and change from the long format (60–80) to the miniseries (12–24).

‘Love and Ambition’ (1987) recorded an unimaginable 78 % viewership. When it aired, the streets became quiet as everyone gathered at home to watch it.

‘Eyes of the Dawn’ (1991–1992) was the first commercially successful K-drama which revolved around Korean history, and Japanese war crimes.

‘Jealousy’ (1994), a drama showing the glimpse of the urban lifestyle, encouraged the networks to link merchandise sales with the popularity of dramas.

‘Sandglass’ (1995) which revolved around politics, marked the beginning of the miniseries format (24 episodes).

In 2000, started the ‘Hallyu movement’ or the ‘Korean wave’ which increased K-dramas popularity exponentially. It started with a K-pop band H.O.T making their first overseas tour to China. Eventually, ‘Hallyu’ spread through Southeast Asia with Korean movie ‘My Sassy Girl’ becoming a Box Office hit. Also, in 2002, the merchandise and DVD sales collected from ‘Winter Sonata’ crossed $3.5 million USD.

Popular K-dramas which were Remakes

  1. ‘The Good Wife’ (U.S series)
  2. ‘Suits’ (American drama)
  3. ‘Life on Mars’ (UK series)
  4. ‘Liar Game’ (Japanese series)
  5. ‘Criminal Minds’ (American series)
  6. ‘Witch’s Romance’ (Taiwanese series)
  7. ‘Entourage’ was remade from the US version, but it did not go well in Korea due to the R-rating
  8. ‘The World of the Married’ an adaptation from ‘Doctor Foster’, a BBC series has become the highest-rated Korean drama.

Popular drama channels

KBS, MBC, SBS, tvN, OCN, and JTBC are some popular South-Korean entertainment channels were the dramas are broadcasted . But, for people outside the country, they need to purchase higher subscription packages for accessing them.

Only 0.7% (approx.) population in the world knows Korean, so the remaining audiences struggle to understand the content without subtitles. To make things easier and accessible, streaming platforms like Netflix, Viki, and KOCOWA started purchasing the rights along with multi-language subtitles support.

Also, there are free streaming sites, like KissAsian and Dramacool, where one can watch or download the complete drama.

Quoting Oscar-winning Director Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite), “There’s another world of entertainment for those who are willing to overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles.”

Countries with maximum K-drama viewership

Here’s a list of countries where Korean dramas are popular:

What do the South Koreans think about K-dramas?

(Source: Quora and AsianBoss)

It is one of the local source of entertainment for them but there is a mixed reaction regarding its popularity in South Korea. Here are some facts the locals stated:

  1. Not everything shown in the drama is realistic, especially regarding the looks of the leads. Although, it is true that the Koreans give huge importance to their fitness and appearances.
  2. As shown in the dramas, Koreans do respect their seniors and elders a lot, as they are ardent followers of the Hierarchical system.
  3. It is a known fact that the K-drama industry has more international fangirls than fanboys. This is true in case of Koreans too.
  4. K-dramas are more popular internationally than in Korea, as global audiences get carried away by the unrealistic plots and storylines. This also hypes up their expectations about the country and its people.
  5. These dramas have less tolerance for sexually intimate scenes as majority of the audiences are teenagers. South Korea has a strict five-part rating system regulated by the KMRB (Korea Media Rating Board) which rates all the content before allowing it to be broadcasted.

Why are they so popular globally?

  1. Just like other entertainment shows, K-drama also has exaggerated plots, which despite of being unrealistic provide a sense of refreshment to the viewers.
  2. The characters are shown with perfection, so the viewers (mostly teenagers and women) find them to be extremely dreamy and rare in reality.
  3. Most of the dramas have a hyped-up (murder-mystery plot, cliffhanger) element in their storyline, which keeps the viewers glued to the screen.

4. The background scenaries in most of the dramas are beautiful, which the global audiences find mesmerising compared to their local content.

5. Food factor plays a huge role in increasing the curiosity of the viewers, as in every drama, the characters will be seen indulging into various mouthwatering Korean cuisines. This leaves the fans longing to visit the country and taste their food.

6. The mini-series format is perfect, with 16–24 episodes of approximately one hour each. It is enough to make an audience understand the plot, get them emotionally invested, shock them with an unexpected twist, and then make them long for more. If you get lucky, there is a second season waiting to binge-watch. Also, for audiences with lack of time, there are mini-series with 8–12 episodes, an hour each.

Future of K-dramas: Efforts taken to make them mainstream globally

Recently, Netflix has signed a three-year production and distribution deal with the South Korean entertainment company — Studio Dragons, which will allow them to produce original content and air them on Netflix’s global platform.

The Korean government has also played an active role in managing the Hallyu movement globally. As of August 2020, the Korean Culture and Information Service has set up 32 Cultural Centers in 28 countries to promote the movement. Also, ‘Parasite’ being the first non-English film to win Best Picture at the Oscars (2019) has helped the global audience become aware of the brilliance of the industry.

Back in 2012, when VH1 featured PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’ for the first time, it became a global sensation. Since then the channel has been flooded with requests to feature more Korean artists.

Indian Broadcaster, Zee Zindagi had tried the ‘Hallyu’ trend as a litmus test back in 2017. They aired a K-drama, ‘Descendants of the Sun’ to check the viewer’s reaction, and were shocked by how popular it got. In the U.S, K-dramas have already started getting the mainstream tag, and at this rate, the other Asian countries won’t be far behind.

Source & References:




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I love watching Korean Dramas and K-Movies and hence love reviewing and talking about them. If you also love them, you’ve reached the right place :)