Market growing for TV writers

By Korea Herald

Veteran script writer Lee Kum-lim talks on life behind-the-scenes

  • Published : Aug 27, 2013 - 19:52
  • Updated : Aug 27, 2013 - 19:53

Korea TV and Radio Writers Association chairperson Lee Kum-lim has seen it all.

The 65-year-old veteran writer witnessed the boom of the local drama industry from its relatively nascent beginnings in the 1980s to its current formidable status as the vanguard of the Korean Wave in the 21st century.

Now, as the jury chair for the 8th Seoul International Drama Awards, Lee has gained further global perspective on the role that Korean dramas are playing in the overseas market as well. 
MBC’s “Tale of Arang” won top honors for the Outstanding Korean Drama Prize category of the 2013 Seoul International Drama Awards. (Seoul Drama Awards Organizing Committee)

“Koreans love dramas,” Lee summed up what may be the primary impetus behind the burgeoning television industry. “Every week, about 29 dramas go on air.”

Indeed, viewers can tune into dramas almost anytime of day now, picking and choosing from the slew of day-to-day, morning, weekend, weekday prime time, cable and general programming channel options that are on rotation.

It would not be a stretch of the imagination to agree with Lee when she says that this is a country that has a serious passion for television series.

And Lee points out that Korean dramas play a key role in the Korean Wave.

That given, it is not surprising that Korea is home turf for the Seoul International Drama Awards, an event that Lee hopes will go on to become the television equivalent of Korea’s Busan International Film Festival.

This year, 225 dramas from 48 countries were entered for a chance at nabbing honors from the annual global awards ceremony, which is slated to be held on Sept. 5 at Seoul’s National Theater of Korea.

Of the 25 works nominated, five are Korean. 
Seoul International Drama Awards jury chair Lee Kum-lim discusses the current drama market at the Korea TV and Radio Writers Association headquarters in Seoul on Monday. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)

Lee, also noted that overseas jury members ― who hail from the United Kingdom, Australia, America, China and Japan ― hold Korean dramas in high regard and that the Seoul International Drama Awards is gaining recognition overseas, such as European countries.

All that recognition and overseas popularity seem to be good for a drama market that is growing by leaps and bounds, thanks in part to the more recent appearance of cable and general programming channel dramas.

“The playing field for writers has gotten bigger,” said Lee, who see cable as a place where scriptwriters can further exercise their creative freedom.

“I initially wondered if cable dramas would carry weight in the industry,” Lee admitted before adding how pleased she was to see series like tvN’s “Reply 1997” and “Nine” gain popularity.

As a matter of fact, in what appears to be the first time for the event, “Reply 1997” has been nominated in the 2013 Seoul International Drama Awards’ best series category.

“I think works will become even more experimental and I look forward to that,” Lee said.

Not only do writers have more opportunities in an industry that puts out an increasingly diverse array of series; the writing system itself, says Lee, is changing.

If the main writer used to do all the actual writing while assistants did the research, now, according to Lee, main and assistant writers work together, with assistants tossing out ideas and giving feedback.

“Writers are creating in groups,” said Lee, who perceives the change as a positive influence on the development of Korean dramas.

Lee, however, notes there is still room for improvement.

“The viewer ratings competition is fierce,” said Lee, recalling the pressure of having to review the ratings’ results the morning after an episode aired. “It is very stressful.”

Lee believes that some standards other than viewer shares should be set to determine the quality of a drama. Lee also stressed a desire to see increased government financial support of the creative industries.

“Only a few stars and writers really make money off dramas,” said Lee.

As for those infamous last-minute scripts, a practice the Culture Ministry is attempting to curb through a recommended standard contract requiring scripts be written two days prior to filming, Lee explained it is not such a simple matter from a writer’s perspective.

“Writers find it hard to really get into writing a script until a timeslot has been set,” Lee said, elaborating that if an airdate is confirmed, say, six months in advance then at best a scriptwriter can churn out eight to 10 episodes before the series starts, making the last-minute script situation difficult to avoid.

As for unplanned episode extensions, Lee, who herself has faced the task of writing up to 170 more episodes than planned, said it is not unwelcome to most scriptwriters but that it can be annoying if the extension is a last-minute decision.

Still, it seems that the industry has come a long way from the 1980s, when Lee wrote the first of 18 dramas to date.

“Now, being a writer is not such a lonely career,” Lee said, with a smile.

By Jean Oh (oh_jean@heraldcorp.com)