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Inconvenient truth of the Korean drama industry

Posted August. 01, 2013 05:41,   


Korean dramas are globally loved cultural products. Within 48 hours after an episode of a drama aired, the episode with English subtitles is streamed online. Within three to four days, the same content becomes available in about 20 languages. The American drama website Drama Fever at www.dramafever.com shows popular Korean TV dramas almost real time. People can find the currently aired drama “I Hear Your Voice” on the website, and “Gu Family Book” was also served when it was aired in Korea. According to the Korea Creative Content Agency, dramas account for 82 percent of Korea’s content export with 167 million dollars.

Korean dramas, however, are not high-end products in the global market. Kang Myeong-gu, director of the Seoul National University Asia Center, said in his study of the Chinese market for Korean dramas that Chinese with higher education and income prefer American and Japanese dramas, the middle class like Chinese and Hong Kong dramas and the low class tend to watch Korean and Taiwanese dramas. Those who watch Korean dramas keep watching them while complaining about absurd stories, saying, “What a mess! What a mess!”

Hong Seok-gyeong, a press information professor at Seoul National University who studied on the European market for Korean dramas, said that loose structure of Korean dramas compared to American drama’s perfect plot and story is the secret of the popularity of the former in Europe. European fans made a ten commandments of Korean dramas based on commonly occurring events. Following is part of the commandment: “Male protagonists are all rich and have personality problems,” “Cancers cost the lives of protagonists” and “Any complex problem can be solved after a big fight.”

Korean dramas are now having a hard time even in low-quality drama markets. Though Korean dramas are loved worldwide, the production environment is very poor, often making headlines in newspapers as social issues. Protagonists of hit dramas file lawsuits to receive pay. The drama “Equator Man” was produced depending on drama scripts that arrived piece by piece and the drama barely made broadcasting time for each episode. Toward the end of the series, the running time became shorter than it should have been.

Han Ye-seul, the protagonist of the drama “Spy Myeong-wol,” did not have to make compensation for delaying the broadcast of one episode of the drama by not appearing for shooting. After Kim Jong-hak, a producer of many globally hit dramas, committed suicide due to financial problems caused by his last drama “The Great Doctor,” no one knows what went wrong with the moderately popular drama. This is because new drama producing companies with a starting capital of less than 100 million won (89,000 U.S. dollars) begin drama productions costing over 5 billion won (4.5 million dollars) without signing a contract. This has caused production companies to go bankrupt no matter how popular their dramas become.

In fact, these problems in the Korean drama industry were detected back in 2004 when “Winter Sonata” hit the Japanese market marking the beginning of the Korean Wave. The Korean government came up with measures to tackle the problems only after the death of great producer Kim Jong-hak. The government said that making a standard contract would solve problems between broadcasters and production companies, including the underpayment of appearance fee, the practice of almost real time production due to late drama script and revenue distribution. However, the key issue is missed in the government measures.

The government did not mention the biggest factor that pushes up production cost: salary of actors and writers. Lee Yeong-ae, the heroin of the globally hit drama “Jewel in the Palace,” received 6 million won (5,350 dollars) per episode for the drama 10 years ago, but now her value went up 10 folds. The proportion of superstars’ salaries in a Korean drama production cost is five times bigger than that of America or Japan. Most popular writers used to receive 10 million won (9,000 dollars) per episode in 2000 but now receive five times more. The government should solve this problem in cooperation with the associations of actors and writers. Pushing forward with economic democratization, the government must be capable of handling small matters such as rationalization of actors’ salaries.

The government should also make measures to secure efficacy and transparency of drama production. American drama producers use software to manage overall drama production from schedule to budget. Schedule shows shooting dates of each actor, necessary equipment for each day and set, the length of daily production and statistics of production status.

In IT superpower Korea, drama producers manually record schedule and budget. The government may do well make software for drama production management and distribute it. If the government is not willing to do more than the standard contract announced Tuesday, foreign fans of Korean dramas will may include “Korean drama production companies go bankrupt after producing a popular drama” into the commandment of Korean drama.