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The wave began in China, but it’s showing signs of breaking

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Oct 16,2006
China has been the biggest market for hallyu, Korean pop culture exports, from the start of the phenomenon. The term hallyu, “Korean wave,” was first coined by the Chinese press in 2000 after the popularity of a number of Korean dramas began to soar there. China continues to be the largest market for Korean pop culture. As one sign, “Jewel in the Palace,” a Korean period drama about royal personages, drew the highest viewership on Hong Kong television for any show in the past 25 years.
Over the years, indeed, hallyu has developed into a multi-billion dollar industry. Drama sets have become attractions for Chinese tourists in Korea. Surveys reveal that Korean male celebrities are among the highest-paid actors outside of Hollywood, because the majority of Korea wave devotees are women. Government policies back businesses to maximize the revenue from the phenomenon; Korean cars, electronics and cosmetics are selling like hotcakes because Korea is home to some of the top heartthrobs of stage and screen.
It’s a common misunderstanding among Koreans that Korean pop culture first became a big export in the Japanese market. It was much later that NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster, aired “Winter Sonata” with Bae Yong-jun in 2003, raising the leading man, Yonsama as he is known to theJapanese, into instant stardom.
The Korean wave dates to 1997 when “Star in My Heart,” a melodramatic love story of an orphan girl and a young man who dreams of becoming a pop singer, became a hit in China. By 2000, Korean stars became national stars in the Chinese press.
The appeal of Korean dramas to the Chinese is easily explained; they deal with issues familiar to many Asian cultures such as family, love and conflicts between modern culture and traditions that reinforce Confucian values. Financially, the low cost of Korean dramas was appealing to Chinese broadcasters; they were much less expensive than most Western productions but bested Chinese productions in style and trendiness.
Still, experts in the Korean entertainment industry agree that hallyu needs a major revamp in order to maintain the scale and quality it had when it produced well-made dramas like “Jewel in the Palace.”
Already, surveys reveal the Korean film market is in drastic decline. A report by the Korean Film Council said that Korean film exports have dropped by 50 percent this year compared to 2005. Other analysts call the decline a sign of a major backlash in Japan and China, where it all began.
Earlier this year the Taiwan government considered banning the broadcast of all foreign dramas during prime time as a measure to protect the local entertainment industry. China also announced that it would limit the amount of Korean imports in the entertainment sector. Somewhat ironically, those pressures arose at the same time the Korean film industry began a campaign to reverse a liberalization of this country’s own limits on the screening of foreign films.
More than 350 Korean dramas were aired in China in 2003 and 2004. The average viewership of those dramas was over 12 percent of the total audience, despite the fact that they were aired only after 10 p.m. The Chinese government enforces a policy that bans the broadcast of foreign dramas during prime time.
But criticism is also coming from inside the Korean entertainment industry that the content of Korean dramas targeted for the hallyu audience relies too much on star power and not enough on story line and production values.
Korean dramas have also earned somewhat of a bad reputation among foreign buyers over recent years because of their soaring prices without an accompanying boost in quality. Again, media outlets are looking for cheaper alternatives.
Last month during a meeting hosted by the Korean Broadcasting Institute, a group of media experts and assemblymen discussed the “crisis” of hallyu at the National Assembly. Park Chang-sik, an executive at Kim Jong-Hak Production, stressed that in order for hallyu to maintain its current position in the Chinese market, Korean producers must develop a business strategy specifically targeted to suit the tastes of audiences there.
“The prime reason behind the popularity of Korean pop culture in China is that there is no such culture in China that could replace Korean content,” he said. “But the phenomenon will turn into a bubble and burst once China develops its own cultural alternatives, especially since China, a socialist nation, is not so generous to foreign culture. So far, the Chinese government views hallyu as a temporary fad among the younger generation. But if its influence expands, there is a great possibility that the government will put on restraints.”
Others suggest localization as an alternative to maintain the status of hallyu in China. When Hunan Satellite TV began broadcasting “Jewel in the Palace,” for example, the network added a Chinese theme song and ran promotional programs to emphasize the drama’s popularity as suiting the tastes of Chinese audiences.
“Hallyu was partly an alternative among Asian nations as a backlash against the global standard centered on the United States,” says Park Jae-bok, a global business representative of MBC. “But it’s time to develop a flexible reaction, as more countries tend to feel the same hostility toward hallyu [as they once did toward Western productions] as the Korean content monopolizes major Asian channels.”


by Park Soo-mee


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