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Creating the Hanryu Wave

Posted July. 20, 2004 22:26,   


A wave of Korean celebrities, known as “Hanryu (韓流) stars,” is sweeping Japan, China, and southeast Asia. This hot new trend is not the work of an odd actor or singer here and there, but the accumulated result of “unseen” efforts in marketing and PR, including the subtle “processing” of celebrity “products” to elevate their “added value.” In this sense, the head of ArirangTV’s Program Sales & Support Center, Kim Tae-jeong (42), is one of those who have long worked behind-the-scenes to generate the “Hanryu wave.”

Kim’s job is to adapt Korean television programs for export, and to provide support for their overseas sales. This includes translation, subtitling, and the securing of sales networks. He has been helming the Center since its inauguration in late 1998, which makes him a living testament to the rise of the Hanryu wave in the late 1990s.

Despite its grand name, the “Support Center” consists of just three employees, including Kim. However, over 90 percent of Korean TV shows exported since the Center’s inception have been processed right here. The trio, led by Kim, not only translates and subtitles programs, but also divides the background music from the sound effects in preparation for the overdubbing process. Productions such as “Autumn Fairy Tale,” “A Wish Upon a Star,” “All In,” and “The Little Mermaid” that led the Hanryu wave, as well as “Winter Love Song,” responsible for the recent Bae Yong-jun syndrome in Japan, were all exported after undergoing similar treatments at the Center.

When Kim was first entrusted with the work of “export support,” industry awareness regarding the overseas sale of TV media was virtually nonexistent. Foreign buyers would often request the separation of background music and sound effects tracks, but the people “upstairs” could not grasp the fact that this operation entailed extra processing expenses. As a result, early exports occurred only when the importing party offered to undertake the translation, subtitling, and the dubbing.

All of that changed with the rise of the Hanryu wave. TV media exports, which amounted to a mere $10 million in 1998, have climbed dramatically to $42 million in the last year. This led to an increased workload for the Program Sales & Support Center, which processed 1,500 individual episodes or productions, equal to 1,050 hours of support, over the past year.

But what really matters, explains Kim, is not the statistics, but the enormous effect our drama series and media productions have on improving Korea’s image abroad—a kind of yield that cannot be measured in mere numbers.

“There’s really nothing better than a TV drama for promoting a country’s culture overseas. Investing billions of won in making promotional material and broadcasting them abroad doesn’t come close to what a single drama series can do.”

Lately, Kim is working to diversify the export market for Hanryu products, which has so far been restricted to Asian regions. Last month, he made a tour of the eastern European market. The rights for the popular series “All In” have been bought by the network that aired it, and the show will be provided free of charge to Albania, Romania, and Bosnia for broadcasting by their state-run TV networks. In 1999, “Cancer: Will It Be Overcome?”, a three-part documentary on Oriental medicine made by an independent production company, was exported to South America and drew explosive responses from viewers. In Korea, the program had been canceled by the network after the first segment.

“Among programs made by small or mid-sized production companies, a substantial number get buried for various reasons even after being purchased by a TV network. Many of them would sell well if marketed abroad, and it’s regrettable that these minor production companies turn over the copyrights, as well as the broadcasting rights, when they submit them to TV networks.”

He also advised that, in order to sustain the overseas popularity of Korean shows and celebrities, we should refrain from exporting programs that are compromised in terms of quality, such as daily soaps that were extended past their intended run because of high ratings.

Kim, who majored in law in Korea and went on to study international relations in Australia, has always been deeply interested in culture; he even worked part-time as an overseas correspondent for the monthly journal “Auditorium” (or “Gaeksuk” in Korean) while studying in Australia. So it’s no coincidence that he has chosen the export of Korean cultural goods as his “calling.”

Kim says that he’s thrilled when visiting foreign countries nowadays because he can see up close the influence exercised by Korean programs he personally nurtured through the export process. “How can I not feel rewarded,” he exclaims, “when a South American suffering from cancer looks toward Korea as a place of hope after watching our program on Oriental medicine?”