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Are cable dramas turning the tables?

This year has seen a jump in the quality and number of made-for-cable dramas, signaling a shift in a market hitherto dominated by major broadcasting networks.

“In the past, cable was seen as an outlet for watching reruns and overseas content,” said Park Ho-sik, senior manager of the production division at cable channel OCN.

Now, the scene is changing. Cable is quickly becoming an experimental platform where racier, bloodier shows, shows that break the mold, can find a spotlight.

Long before “The Slave Hunters” made waves on KBS, MBCPLUS Media found a niche market for historical thrillers in 2007 with their cable series, “BSG Police (ByeolSunGeom).”

According to MBCPLUS Media drama producer Lee Hong-cheol, the CSI-style Joseon Dynasty series first hit MBC as a seven-episode pilot around 2005 to 2006 but failed to nab high viewer ratings.

The cable subsidiary of the network, however, saw potential in the series’ original concept and decided to air it as a police procedural on its MBC Dramanet channel. Ratings went up as high as 4.3 percent, the equivalent, says Lee, of getting a whopping 40 percent on a major broadcasting network.

A second season followed in 2008, with a third season hitting cable this year, cementing an American-style season-based trend for the show.

MBCPLUS Media is not the only cable company to adopt season-based formatting. CJ Media-owned channel tvN just finished airing the seventh season of their Bridget Jones-esque series, “Missy Young-Ae.” 
The cast of cable channel tvN’s latest original drama, “Once Upon a Time in Saengchori,” slated to air its first episode Nov. 5  (tvN)
The cast of cable channel tvN’s latest original drama, “Once Upon a Time in Saengchori,” slated to air its first episode Nov. 5  (tvN)

Unlike “BSG Police,” whose main cast changes after every season, “Missy Young-Ae” has kept lead actress Kim Hyeon-sook for all seven seasons, a notable achievement because, according to Lee, it is not easy to hold onto a series’ original cast.

Lee believes that the Korean drama industry has yet to fully realize an investment and profit system that would enable them to keep paying for the ensuing hike in cast members’ salaries following each season.

Furthermore, viewers are still accustomed to tuning into cable to watch reruns of broadcast dramas, says Lee, making them significant rivals for original cable shows.

OCN’s Park also cites broadcast dramas as their biggest competitors, with other cable programs, like Mnet’s “SuperstarK” running a close second.

While American broadcasting networks function on a season-based cycle that tends to leave summer open to cable networks to air original shows and nab viewer shares, Korean broadcasting networks air dramas all-year round, leaving less opportunity for cable to squeeze in and snap up audiences.

Despite the stiff competition, Korean cable dramas have slowly been gaining a foothold in the market starting as far back as 2002, when MBCPLUS aired their first original cable series.

This year promises to set new milestones.

Amidst a slew of fresh made-for-cable dramas including SBS Plus’ “Kiss and the City” (the title says it all), tvN’s stab at historical-mystery in “Unsolved” and their upcoming comedy, “Once Upon a Time in Saengchori” two original OCN series stand out as potential game changers.

OCN first entered the original content market with “Love Puzzle” in 2004, expanding their portfolio with the racy and popular “The Family Affairs,” a thriller aptly-titled “Coma” and a gangster-comedy, “Kid Gang.”

These, however, were all television films. “Quiz from God,” which started airing on Oct. 8, is the channel’s first original drama.

Featuring “Like A Virgin” star Ryu Deok-hwan as the quirky lead, the medical-mystery pairs strong cinematography and compelling plot twists with a procedural format.

Ratings for the fourth episode went up to 1.65 percent and averaged 1.198 percent (AGB Nielsen Media Research), which may seem trifling, but when translated into cable speak it means that the drama held top ratings for its timeslot in the cable and satellite sphere.

Next up on OCN is “A Yaksa,” which OCN’s Park describes as “a little more hardboiled than ‘The Slave Hunters’” and “like ‘300’ and ‘Spartacus.’”

The 12-episode series, according to a press release, will be entirely filmed in advance and is racking up production costs of 3 billion won ($2.7 million).

Set in the Joseon period, the series centers on a secret royal organization surrounded by dark dealings.

Gladiator slaves will be part-and-parcel of the blood-drenched spectacle that revolves around the organization’s head Baek Rok (“Searching For The Elephant” actor Jo Dong-hyeok), his brother Baek Gyeol (“Spring Waltz” star Seo Do-young) and heroine Jung Yeon (singer-turned-actress Jeon Hye-bin).

Viewing will be restricted to audiences aged 19 and over, and judging from the amount of blood spewing from knife-sliced bodies during the brief preview reel, the rating is more than justified.

Even more fascinating, however, is the set-up of the preview, which presents scenes from Starz’s “Spartacus,” HBO’s “Band of Brothers” and HBO-BBC’s “Rome” before flashing the statement, “We have been waiting for a series like this.”

OCN’s Park shed light on this marketing tack when he revealed that they benchmark HBO the most, a natural move considering that the American cable network has been credited with propelling made-for-cable dramas into the spotlight through highly successful shows like “Sex and the City.”

“HBO explores a lot of diverse genres,” he explained.

After “A Yaksa” hits the small screen in December, Park hopes to air original cable dramas once a week all-year long.

“It requires a lot of investment, though, because that means 52 episodes need to be produced,” he said. For example, if each episode costs around 200 million won ($179,540) to make, than annual production costs would nearly reach 10 billion won ($8.98 million).

Why is OCN going to all this trouble?

“We need to make content that can be identified with OCN,” said Park. “We need our own work to cement that brand.”

In a market increasingly saturated by original programming, it may become crucial, indeed, to formulate a brand that viewers associate with quality content.

By Jean Oh (
Korea Herald daum