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Cable TV programs emerge as mainstream player in showbiz

Culture Minister Yoo Jin-ryong (fourth from left), poses with winners of the Korea Content Awards 2013 including TV writer Lee Woo-jung (second from right) at Coex in southern Seoul on Friday.  (Korea Creative Content Agency)
Culture Minister Yoo Jin-ryong (fourth from left), poses with winners of the Korea Content Awards 2013 including TV writer Lee Woo-jung (second from right) at Coex in southern Seoul on Friday.  (Korea Creative Content Agency)

Cable and general programming TV programs have been widely regarded as less in quality, but the recent success of several shows has brought change and dynamicity to a field that has long been ruled by terrestrial TV content. Armed with “daring” humor and nature, these minor players are emerging as trend setters, and the next possible hallyu engine.

On Friday, Lee Woo-jung and Song Jae-jeong, writers for smash-hit TV shows “Reply 1994” and “Nine” respectively, won at the Korea Content Awards 2013. Lee, who has created three consecutive hits ― “Grandpas over Flowers,” “Reply 1994” and “Sisters over Flowers” ― this year, was named the presidential award winner and Song received the Culture Minister award for creating the time-traveling TV drama.

The news came as a shock to the industry since the programs were aired on tvN, one of the cable TV channels under CJ. This is the first time a cable TV program crew won.

“Lee’s ‘Grandpas over Flowers’ depicts the story of four elderly backpackers with humor and warmth,” the Korea Creative Content Agency, the host of the award, said.

“I think it is a monumental moment in Korea’s cable TV history that such programs have been acknowledged for superiority in quality,” said Kim Dong-hyun, a spokesman at the Korea Cable Television and Telecommunications Association. “It shows that the media platform cannot be an obstacle anymore in introducing high-quality content,” he said.

It’s not only the quality that has been acknowledged. It was the viewers who first spotted something special in cable TV programs. “Grandpas over Flowers” marked an average of 5 percent viewer ratings earlier this year, while “Reply 1994” is about 0.3 percent shy of reaching 10 percent, which is higher than some of its terrestrial TV rival shows.

“Many terrestrial TV programs have been repeating their signature success codes such as ‘love between the poor and the super rich’ or dig into ‘family secrets’ usually involving childbirth out of wedlock and extramarital affairs. But these newly praised programs have been focusing on familiar subjects, ordinary lives that draw people to see themselves in the characters,” Chung Deok-hyun, a TV critic, said in an interview.

And these TV stations, which can avoid tough regulations adjusted to terrestrial TV networks, dare to touch on sensitive issues or taboos. “Sseoljeon” by general programming TV station, jTBC, picks on, twists and satirizes political power, business leaders and showbiz insiders in a blunt way that could easily induce a warning from the authorities if it was aired on MBC, KBS or SBS.

The tvN comedy show, “Saturday Night Live Korea” has touched on politics and sex, the two main taboos in the Korean entertainment scene, and established a solid fandom here craving something new. From sexual noises to implication, insinuation and actions, the actors and actresses tickle the tolerance level of Korean TV viewers.

“Major terrestrial TV networks have failed to catch up with the volatile trend of the Korean masses. Cable and general programming networks have targeted specific viewers and tried out new things with little hesitation that has obviously resulted in success,” said critic Kim Kyo-seok.

This new breed of TV programs has become the next hallyu, or Korean pop culture wave, item. “Reply 1997,” the predecessor of “Reply 1994” that aired last year, was sold to 19 countries and “1994” is expected to follow suit. The format for “Nine” was bought by Fake Empire Entertainment in the U.S. earlier this year and the remake is expected to air through major American TV network, ABC.

“tvN is marking its seven-year anniversary and we have been investing in creating an indigenous environment to cultivate a new system and culture. We won’t stop that,” said Lee Deok-jae, a tvN official.

By Bae Ji-sook (
Korea Herald Youtube