The Korea Herald


Are Korean dramas struggling on Netflix?

Emphasis on special effects, period themes contribute to declining performance of K-contents, according to experts

By Lee Yoon-seo

Published : Jan. 15, 2024 - 15:52

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"Song of the Bandits" (Netflix)

Despite the continued success of Netflix's global hit Korean drama originals such as “Squid Game,” "The Glory," and "Hellbound," which have all topped Netflix's non-English TV series weekly chart in succession, Netflix's recent K-drama original releases made at higher production costs are struggling to reap the same results.

According to Netflix's "Global Top 10" list, which ranks its titles in four categories including "Film (English)," "TV (English)," "Film (Non-English)," and "TV (Non-English)" based on views -- or the total hours viewed divided by the total runtime --- "Mask Girl" was the last title to top the Netflix's global top 10 list in the TV (Non-English) sector, on the third week of August.

Since August, 2023, Netflix has released a slew of large-scale Korean original dramas such as "Song of the Bandits," "Doona!," "Sweet Home 2" and "Gyeongseong Creature."

However, despite star-studded casts and budgets that generally exceeded that of past Netflix Korean originals, recent releases have been unable to take the top spot on Netflix's ranking lists.

According to industry insiders, Netflix invested some 36 billion won ($27 million) in producing "Song of the Bandits," a drama series released in September 2022, which focuses on Koreans living in 1920, during the Japanese colonization. The drama series was one of the highest-budget Netflix Korean original drama series.

Despite media hype suggesting that the drama series could be the next "Squid Game," which was made with a smaller budget, "Song of the Bandits" only made global top 10 list in the TV (Non-English) category for three weeks from Sept. 18 to Oct. 8, 2023, ranking sixth, second and ninth.

"Squid Game," which is rumored to have been made at a cost of 30 billion won, remained on the same list for 16 consecutive weeks, while ranking at No. 1 for nine of those weeks.

"Doona!," a nine-part romance drama starring K-pop sensation Suzy, is rumored to have been made for between 20 billion won and 30 billion won, while "Sweet Home 2," is thought to have cost more than the first season, which had a production budget of 30 billion won.

Despite their production costs, both titles failed to stay on the global top 10 list in the TV (Non-English) category for more than two and three weeks, respectively.

Netflix's fantasy original drama series "Gyeongseong Creature," which is rumored to have cost a whopping 70 billion won, has ranked third on the global top 10 list in the TV (Non-English) for three weeks.

"The production cost for 'Gyeongseong Creature' was a bit too much," said an industry insider on the condition of anonymity.

"Considering the investment, the show should have made it to the top spot on the list, at least once. The title was released recently, so we have to watch the situation for a bit longer, but the prospects of ("Gyeongseong Creature") taking the No. 1 spot seems a bit unlikely," he said.

Experts say the reason Netflix Korean drama originals are struggling in Netflix's global ranking system may be found in the producers's recent attempts to attract viewers with stunning special effects.

"Riding on the success of monster horror series and fantasy-genre titles, (Korean producers) are attempting to draw the viewers' eyes with special effects rather than airtight storytelling skills," said pop culture critic Kim Hern-sik.

"Focusing on large budgets which aim to emphasize special effects, and, striving to make contents more attractive (through such efforts) are factors that diminish the global influence and popularity of Korean content," he added.

There are also periodical factors that contribute to the declining performance of Korean shows on Netflix, according to experts.

"With the pandemic over, viewers are starting to stray away from streaming platforms. There is a general decrease in viewing hours. Such phenomenon makes one wonder if a series like 'Squid Game' would have received the same explosive response had it been released around the end of 2024," said Kim.

But Kim says Koreans may be unrealistic when evaluating the success of Korean content, having been distracted by the incredible success of "Squid Game" and "The Glory."

"South Korea sets the standard for success on Netflix too high. Globally, the awareness of K-content is still significantly lower than (content produced in English). Just making it to the top 10 in the non-English-speaking category should be considered remarkable," he said.

Producers added that success on Netflix did not always align with what producers consider success.

"We thought of Netflix as a medium for our work to gain ripple effect in the global stage," said Kang Eun-kyung, the screenwriter for "Gyeongseong Creature," during an interview held last Wednesday.

"We didn't create 'Gyeongseong Creature' to perfectly suit the viewers' tastes or for it to become a big hit. After the release of 'Gyeongseong Creature,' we saw googling for Unit 731 rise exponentially in Japan, and we wondered what that data could mean, as a whole," she said.