Back To Top

Field guide to post-‘Winter Sonata’ hallyu

MBC drama“Heartstrings” (JS Picture)
MBC drama“Heartstrings” (JS Picture)
After the Korean Wave gained serious momentum in the field of television over a decade ago, the global market for Korean dramas has expanded and morphed drastically.

No longer restricted to Asia or home theater, broadcasters and production companies must navigate an increasingly complex terrain that encompasses both regional preferences and the Internet.

Long gone are the times when TV series were made for the domestic market alone.

Take Chorok­baem Media, the production company behind hallyu hit “All In.” 
SBS drama “All In” (SBS)
SBS drama “All In” (SBS)

According to Chorokbaem’s vice president Jung Moon-we, the company started to take the overseas market into consideration for production one to two years ago.

“We are doing joint productions, casting actors and actresses that are popular overseas and even doing promotion like product placement for Korean exports,” Jung said via e-mail.

Jung revealed that Chorokbaem is also currently prepping for two joint productions involving Japanese and other Asian counterparts.

Furthermore, Jung said he believes the launch of four new general programming channels in early December may have fueled further interest amongst overseas investors in Korean dramas.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

According to Jung, the market for Korean dramas has expanded from Asia to the Middle East to Europe and the Americas over the last decade, and KBS Content Business department manager Gim Seung-ha ― who handles overseas exports and drama copyright negotiations ― earmarked the Middle East as a new, rising market for Korean dramas this year.

Gim said Japan, Taiwan and China were the three main markets for Korean dramas, and added that recently certain dramas sell as well as they do in the Chinese or Taiwanese market in the Philippines.

In short, this is no longer a matter of casting a hallyu star for a hallyu drama. It simply isn’t that one-dimensional anymore.

Industry insiders need to be regionally specific.

According to Gim, while romantic series are generally popular across the board, Japan and Taiwan exhibit preferences for romances and melodramas, China for romances and the Middle East for historical romances and soap operas, when it comes to Korean dramas.

SBS Contents Hub’s Global Business Team head Choi Jae-young ― whose team handles the overseas distribution of its parent company’s programs ― also noted a more recent change in genre preferences in Japan.

“In Japan, melodramas like ‘Winter Sonata’ were big at first but historical romances are slowly diversifying the market,” he said via email before elaborating that the expansion of viewership from women to include men has prompted the popularity of period pieces in the nation.

According to New York-based online video service DramaFever’s co-founder Seung Bak, whose site currently streams content including Korean dramas in North America, “our most popular genres are romantic comedy, historicals and melodramas.”

“These dramas are novel and fascinating for American viewers because the story lines are very catchy yet different from mainstream American shows,” Bak said via e-mail.

Stars play an equal and possibly even more important role in the overseas success of Korean dramas.

KBS’ Gim revealed that while buyers take various elements into account when evaluating a Korean series, “the influential power of stars is still absolute.” 
SBS drama “He’s Beautiful!” (SBS)
SBS drama “He’s Beautiful!” (SBS)

For example KBS’ Gim pointed to the popularity of Jang Keun-suk in Japan as a factor in the “overwhelming popularity” of KBS’ “Marry Me, Mary!” there, while SBS Contents Hub’s Choi linked the success of SBS’ “He’s Beautiful!” with that of Jang in the Japanese market.

It seems that the power of stardom in the realm of hallyu, as evidenced by first generation stars like Bae Yong-joon, has not changed over the years, but the hallyu drama market has changed in other ways, namely, through the Internet.

It does not take a genius to note cyberspace’s ability to melt boundaries between Korean dramas and their overseas fans, and those in the know are jumping on board.

For instance, according to Jung, Chorokbaem Media is on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

So where is the Internet’s role in hallyu most effective?

SBS Contents Hub’s Choi pointed to Europe and the Americas as regions where the Internet plays a big role in spreading hallyu. DramaFever’s impressive growth following its launch in 2009 seems to serve as proof of that.

“As a business, we tripled in 2011,” said Bak.

“There is very strong and growing demand for Korean content overseas. In fact, 80 percent of our 2 million-plus monthly users are not even Asian and Koreans make up only a very small percentage (less than five percent) of our audience.”

Also, thanks to the Internet, hallyu fans can also get more involved.

According to Bak, DramaFever users participated in selecting the official English drama title for the series “Heartstrings” which “became the third most watched title on our site of all time and the fastest to reach a million views” within less than two months.

Bak stated that he believes the “Internet had a profound impact in the growing global popularity of Korean dramas.”

The company itself stands a case in point of how cyberspace knows no boundaries.

Never mind that DramaFever is based in North America, Bak revealed plans to stream videos in South America, Europe, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Australia beginning early this year.

This is second of a five-part series on hallyu. ― Ed.

By Jean Oh