But the game has changed ― Korean TV series with fewer viewers can still make an international splash thanks to streaming platforms such as Netflix. Even industry insiders say that "a low viewership has not pushed the K-drama industry over the edge."
A plethora of K-dramas ― including actor Lee Min-ho's romantic fantasy "The King: Eternal Monarch" (2020) and Kim Soo-hyun's rom-com "It's Okay to Not Be Okay" (2020) ― have conquered the most-watched TV show charts in various countries on Netflix, and others have gained popularity after being exported.
According to the Korea Creative Content Agency's (KOCCA) latest data, drama exports earned $214 million in 2018, a 19.2 percent jump from 2017.
In contrast, here at home, K-dramas are reeling from dramatic declines in viewership. Popular TV series' ratings hovered around 30 percent until a few years ago, but today, even the most-popular dramas barely exceed 15 percent and less sought-after productions such as KBS's 2020 rom-com "Welcome" hit less than 1 percent.
Additionally, star-studded casts have failed to save them.
"The King: Eternal Monarch" ended up garnering average ratings of 6 percent to 8 percent in Korea and "It's Okay to Not Be Okay" has shown a similar trend. In fact, these days, only one or two dramas surpass the 20 percent to 30 percent mark a year, according to a drama production company official who spoke to The Korea Times on condition of anonymity. This can largely be attributed to the rise of streaming platforms, he said.
"Thanks to Netflix and other services, I can choose to watch TV shows of assorted genres made in the U.S, Europe or many other countries at any time I want to," a Korean woman in her 20s told The Korea Times. "I don't watch Korean TV series frequently because of their cookie-cutter stories and excessive product placement," (PPL).
A rise in the number of people sharing comparable perspectives with her has triggered a fall in the ratings. But this has not excessively damaged the K-drama industry, according to the official.
"Viewership is no longer the absolute criterion for a drama," he said. "Even local broadcasters have lowered the target viewership ― they used to provide incentives to production companies if a drama recorded about a 20 percent rating, but now have lowered the bar as they know how much the industry has changed.
"Hence, instead of striving to boost the viewership in Korea, the production companies are seeking to diversify the platforms for their works to reach global viewers."
This has become a new recipe for success for K-dramas.
Nowadays, many productions ― especially the smaller ones ― are turning to Netflix. The streaming giant is known to cover a large portion ― sometimes even 100 percent ― of the total production cost that can be as high as tens of billions of won. Through the service, the production companies can also showcase their TV series to viewers in more than 190 countries.
Korean broadcasters, on the other hand, are not financially healthy enough to pay all the costs due to several factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, so they usually cover only 60 percent to 70 percent. To make up for the remainder, production companies can resort to advertisements, or PPL, but the faltering economy here has been hampering their search for partners.
This has led some production companies to begin making content customized for Netflix or other buyers from abroad for their survival. The official said the latter almost always want to bring "a Korean rom-com starring a popular and good-looking male lead" to their country. Their preference is distinctive from that of Koreans, who have asked drama makers to stop focusing on romance and diversify the genres of their productions.
"When we offer other genres such as a medical drama, 90 percent of overseas buyers turn them down irrespective of their quality," the official said. "Maybe this is because Korean rom-coms such as Descendants of the Sun have been making waves around the world.
"Global viewers have different sentiments. They seem to be fond of the narrative arc of these stories and how the characters handle conflicts. Whether a big-name hallyu star appears or not also matters for them."
Pop culture critic Kim Hern-sik elaborated on the "contrasting sentiments."
"Korean viewers tend to value realism quite a lot, while the global audience doesn't," he told The Korea Times. "Thus, many Koreans might have felt that fantasy dramas like The King lacked realism to an excessive extent, but international viewers seemingly did not mind that."
Drama critic Yun Suk-jin, a professor of Korean Language and Literature at Chungbuk National University in North Chungcheong Province, talked about the future.
"Celebrities like Lee Min-ho can draw global viewers and help his dramas gain worldwide popularity," Yoon said. "But as time goes by, viewers abroad will also prioritize a drama's quality over the actors."
K-drama makers agree with him. Production companies are striving to upgrade the quality of their work to eventually win over audiences at home and abroad.
"Most drama productions still value the local market and want to attract more viewers in their home country," the official said. "We also believe that high quality can bring us more recognition in and out of Korea."
source: The Korea Times