Retro show 'Country Diaries' hits it off with fans young and old
Almost two decades have passed since the long-running MBC series "Country Diaries" (1980-2002) aired its last episode, but the vintage series has lately become the talk of the town again.
"Country Diaries," which told the story of families living in a countryside village, ended in December of 2002 with its 1,088th episode. It aired for over 22 years and still holds the record for the longest-running television series ever in Korea.
The series was highly popular as it played up the nostalgia people felt for their countryside hometowns. When "Country Diaries" started airing, Korea was undergoing rapid urbanization, and many Koreans had moved to cities, homesick for their rural hometowns they left behind.
After the mid-1990s, the show ran out of good, new story material after airing for so long and started to see a decline in ratings, eventually leading it to end in 2002.
But recently, a number of cable channels such as MBC ON, KTV, GTV and Edge TV started airing reruns of the series, and statistics on the main viewership are rather unexpected.
In the case of cable channel MBC ON, which dedicates over 50 hours of its 168-hour airtime on reruns of "Country Diaries," the top age ranges of viewers during the first half of this year were women in their 50s; women in their 40s; men and women over 60; and men in their 30s were the fourth largest viewership.
"The ratio of male viewers in their 30s has consistently been standing out," said an MBC ON official.
Younger viewers, who tend to prefer watching content online as opposed to on television, are more prominent on other platforms as well. "Country Diaries" ranked 11th place on over-the-top (OTT) streaming platform Wavve's most-viewed series list last December.
Many new fans of "Country Diaries" are people who did not grow up watching the show, as they were too young or not born yet while it was airing. But that actually helps those generations find the series refreshing and novel.
"Younger generations today are exhausted by an overwhelming flood of information," said pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun. "So they become addicted to content they can watch while zoning out, slowly and without too much sensory stimulus.
"On top of that, nowadays the countryside is only occasionally shown on entertainment shows. There are hardly any K-dramas that fulfill the public's fantasy regarding the countryside and nature. That's why young viewers today find 'Country Diaries' so appealing."
"To young people in their 20s and 30s, watching 'Country Diaries' feels like listening to cassette tapes," said culture critic Kim Gyo-seok. "They think it's 'hipster' to consume such vintage content."
The fact that many cast members of the show — now-veteran actors Kim Hye-ja, Kim Soo-mi and Go Doo-shim — are still highly active is another factor that contributed to the renaissance of "Country Diaries."
To celebrate MBC's 60th anniversary, the channel will air "Docuflex - Country Diaries 2021" every Friday at 8:50 p.m. from June 18 for the following three weeks as part of its documentary series "Docuflex."
More than 30 of the original cast members, including then-child actors who are now accomplished adult actors, will reunite to look back on their memories of filming "Country Diaries" and discuss its rediscovered attention in 2021.
"'Country Diaries' was initially beloved because people who moved to cities missed their hometowns and their families they left there," said program director Kim Hyeon-gi of "Docuflex." "Today, I think many people watch it because of a sort of nostalgia for something they've never even experienced."
"I also think the simple long-take scenes of 'Country Diaries' feel novel and cool to younger viewers in their 20s and 30s," Kim added.
The series also had unique cases of real life and fiction blending together.
The show's crossing over between fiction and reality due to two decades of airing also fits today's trend that values storytelling. For instance, when actor Kang Hyun-jong had to temporarily leave the show for his mandatory military service, his character Su-nam in the show also enlisted. For the scene in which Su-nam's family goes to visit him on the military base, actors went to the base Kang was actually serving on to film it.
When actor Jung Tae-sub suddenly passed away in 2001, his character in the show also died, and one episode featured an actual funeral for his character.
And actors Nam Sung-jin and Kim Ji-young, who played lovers in the series, got married in real life after the show ended.
The rising importance of elderly viewers as a key consumer base for the Korean entertainment industry also plays a role in the show's second heyday. Viewers 60 and older watch reruns of "Country Diaries" today reminiscing about when the show originally aired and their personal memories from that era.
"Today's elderly citizens no longer consume content passively by simply turning on the television at 8 p.m. to watch whatever soap opera is on," said culture critic Kim. "Now they also have the ability to actively seek out and select what content they want to watch. 'Country Diaries' is a nostalgic show for the elderly as well, and they want to watch it again because it still suits their tastes. So the show rising in popularity again is a result of those factors."
BY LEE JI-YOUNG [email@example.com]