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Can K-dramas take off outside Asia?

Korean TV could go further with global joint productions and collaborations

By Korea Herald

Published : Sept. 10, 2013 - 20:11

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In the past few years, K-pop has tapped the hitherto impenetrable European and American markets with acts like Super Junior and Psy, whose single “Gangnam Style” became a chart-topping, universally hot phenomenon.

“My 3-year-old nephew can do the dance,” said Muffy Potter, who is company director and producer of Put It Out There Pictures, noting that “Gangnam Style” had definitely reached Australia.
Put It Out There Pictures company director Muffy Potter (left) and American Public Television CEO Cynthia Fenneman discuss K-dramas in Seoul on Thursday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald) Put It Out There Pictures company director Muffy Potter (left) and American Public Television CEO Cynthia Fenneman discuss K-dramas in Seoul on Thursday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

American Public Television CEO Cynthia Fenneman, noted a similar development in the U.S. “It was quite the rage amongst non-Asians to admire K-pop. It was quite a cool thing,” said Fenneman who heads a major U.S. programming distributor.

However, the same could not be said about K-dramas, which both Potter and Fenneman agree are still primarily viewed by a limited, specific audience in America and Australia.

“I think the trick is because Korean dramas are of a different length,” Fenneman a onetime executive producer for PBS’ “Ciao Italia,” said.

According to Fenneman, U.S. television shows run for 42 to 50 minutes while Korean dramas average an hour to 70 minutes.

“That would mean editing content,” said Fenneman.

“The other thing is language,” said Potter, an Australian producer who co-helms a production company.

Potter noted that while language would not be an issue in countries where dubbed content is prevalent, selling content to countries that do not share a common language “is probably the biggest obstacle” to the further spread of K-dramas.

Both industry experts are acquainted with K-drama content and were in Korea for the 8th Seoul International Drama Awards last week.

Fenneman, who was a juror for last year’s Seoul International Drama Awards, acted as a consultant for the event while Potter served as a juror this year.

“This is one of the few arenas to really put drama up on a pedestal,” Fenneman said of the Seoul International Drama Awards. “Of course, that it is international is so important.”

According to Fenneman, the event is “really putting Korean dramas on the map.” 
The 8th Seoul International Drama Awards ceremony was held at the National Theater of Korea on Thursday.(Seoul Drama Awards Organizing Committee) The 8th Seoul International Drama Awards ceremony was held at the National Theater of Korea on Thursday.(Seoul Drama Awards Organizing Committee)

This year, five out of a total of 25 nominated works were Korean and SBS’ thriller “Chaser” walked away with secondary honors for Best Series at the awards ceremony.

“That was such a moving show,” said Potter. “It really was; absolutely fantastic performances in it.”

Yet despite the quality of K-dramas, the K-drama as a genre has yet to gain notable momentum outside the Asian market.

Remakes, which eliminate the language barrier issue, would seem like the most logical way to expand the overseas market for K-drama. However, according to Potter, the battle to get formats sold and distributed outside of one’s country is cutthroat.

“It is an incredibly competitive marketplace right now,” said Potter.

That does not mean there is little hope for K-dramas in the broader television market. The market is ripe for dramas, says Potter, with co-production a way to expand K-dramas’ reach abroad.

“I think there is a resurgence in television dramas,” said Potter. “I think television drama is the new cinema.”

Potter also noted that “audiences across the globe are more hungry for content. It is encouraging more co-productions.”

Potter went on to reference one of this year’s standout global collaborations, “Top of the Lake.”

The miniseries was co-directed by prominent filmmaker Jane Campion and co-produced by UKTV in Australia and New Zealand, U.K.-based BBC Two and the U.S.-based Sundance Channel.

For Potter, the success of a collaborative effort like “Top of the Lake” hinged on its “great storytelling.”

Potter, who is taking part in a Broadcast Worldwide 2013 drama workshop for global marketing strategies in Korea this week, said those looking to take K-dramas farther afield might begin with, “What kind of stories can we tell that may be set in Korea that could reverberate across the world?”

“That’s how you start selling ideas and formats,” Potter said.

Large-scale global collaborations seem to already be happening in the Korean film industry, most notably with the much-talked-about Bong Joon-ho-helmed flick, “Snowpiercer.”

Primarily a Korean production, The Weinstein Company is acting as the film’s distributor for America and several other countries while the cast includes high profile British and American actors and actresses.

Given that the film is in English, it will be interesting to see how English-speaking countries receive the film when released there.

Should “Snowpiercer” garner a positive reception abroad, it might bring up several questions for the Korean entertainment industry, including the drama market, which seems to have yet to see notable success in overseas collaborations.

By Jean Oh (oh_jean@heraldcorp.com)