[WHY] Is Netflix the only reason Korean originals are gaining attention?
Last year, it was “Squid Game” and “Hellbound.” This year, it’s “All of Us Are Dead."
Netflix Korea originals are on fire, and their remarkable performances across the globe are building up anticipation for the two dozen more originals announced for this year.
The latest high school zombie gore show, “All of Us Are Dead,” ranked No. 5 on Netflix’s most popular non-English series chart while “Single’s Inferno” became the first Korean reality show to land on the streaming service’s Top 10 TV Shows chart in January.
Last year, “Hellbound” ranked No. 1 on the top 10 Global TV Series chart and “The Silent Sea” became the most-watched non-English series during the last week of December.
And let’s not forget “Squid Game” — the most-watched non-English Netflix original of all time.
This isn’t the first time for Korean content to receive global acclaim. Films have been earning global recognition too.
There was Bong Joon-ho’s monumental Oscar and Palme d'Or wins in 2020 and before that, Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” won numerous accolades from international film festivals in 2019.
But never have so many Korean drama series been recognized in such a short amount of time.
So why is Korean content receiving so much attention on Netflix?
Why have shows like “All of Us Are Dead” and “Squid Game” never been made in Korea before?
It’s not because Korean production studios lack talent, but because they were never given the opportunity to do so.
Producers are forced to make shows with very tight budgets, which leads them to smother their programs with product placement (PPL) and cliché storylines to ensure a steady source of income and guaranteed viewership.
When “Squid Game” became popular, memes began circulating on the internet in which people imagined what “Squid Game” would have been like if it had been made for Korean TV channels.
Contestants of “Squid Game” wake up from a bed with the Ceragem brand name massively printed on the mattress. Then they eat their Subway sandwiches and drink Sprite. Workers make dalgona with CJ CheilJedang’s sugar. Everyone falls in love with each other, and after the games are finished, contestants gather at a house to look back on their memories together.
The average production cost allotted to studios is said to be around $25,000 to $250,000 per episode, depending on which channel and how big the investment is.
“Squid Game,” on the other hand, reportedly received $21.4 million for the whole show, or $2.4 million per episode.
That’s 10 to 100 times more than what Korean producers usually work with, but is still considered cheaper than other Netflix originals.
“The Witcher,” the second-most-watched Netflix original of all times, received $15 million per episode.
Because Korean producers have been used to working under such conditions, they now have a chance to fully explore their capabilities with Netflix’s immense monetary backing.
So if other local producers had more money, would we be seeing similar shows on Korean TV?
No, because producers wouldn’t be allowed to make such shows and their audiences wouldn’t want to watch them either.
Netflix guarantees as much freedom as it can to its creators, which allowed “Squid Game,” “Hellbound” and “All of Us Are Dead” to be as dark and gory as they wanted to be.
However, Korea has quite a frigid media environment.
You would never see zombies’ heads getting chopped off or contestants killing each other for money on Korean TV, because neither the broadcaster nor the audiences would condone it.
According to the Broadcasting Act, Korean shows cannot “promote crimes, immoral conduct or speculative spirits” or “promote lewdness, decadence or violence which has a negative influence on a sound family life."
“Squid Game” director Hwang Dong-hyuk had his script turned down by every local studio he submitted it to 10 years ago when he first finished it.
In fact, Korean audiences chastise TV channels if they find something they see “unfit” and boycott the show until the broadcaster cancels the program.
In a way, this comes as no surprise because Korea is still a conservative society when it comes to moral conduct. Broadcasters are naturally more restricted than online streaming services because people can’t choose what they want to see on a specific channel.
Then would it be possible to air such Netflix Korea originals on local over-the-top (OTT) services?
Maybe, but they wouldn’t be as big a hit as “Squid Game” or any other Netflix originals.
The truth is, Korean OTTs have such a long way to go before they can compete with Netflix. It would take years until an original on Wavve, Tving or Watcha is watched for millions of hours like the Netflix originals.
Netflix has around 222 million subscribers across 190 countries around the world.
When a new feature hits, it’s immediately translated into many different languages and simultaneously distributed in regions across the globe.
For a TV program, the broadcaster has to sign a contract with individual countries to sell their shows overseas, sometimes having to pay for extra expenses like translation. But because there’s no guarantee that the show will be a hit, the broadcaster has to make a careful decision when it comes to marketing in new territories.
Local OTTs do have a fighting chance, but they still need time.
Companies behind Tving and Wavve stated their global ambitions last year, but they have yet to take any concrete steps. Watcha does offer its service in Japan, but hasn’t made any plans to expand elsewhere.
In Korea, Netflix takes up 47 percent of the online streaming market. Wavve follows far behind with 19 percent and Tving with 14 percent.
And it’s not just Korean OTTs. Walt Disney’s streaming service Disney+ recently rolled out a new drama series “Rookie Cops” on Jan. 26, but gained little attention from viewers.
Market watchers say that unless OTTs come forward with a megahit original, it may be difficult to overthrow the current king of streaming, Netflix.
What other factors helped Korean content to become popular?
It hasn't been just Netflix Korea originals garnering attention from international audiences, K-dramas have been around for years.
In addition, the popularity of K-pop, in particular the success of boy band BTS, has attracted non-Korean speakers to Korean content.
In 2015, BTS made its humble debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart with “The Most Beautiful Moment in Life, Part 2.” Six years later in 2021, the band’s first English single “Dynamite” was nominated for the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the Grammys — the first for any Korean singer.
When people listen to Korean songs on the radio and the language on television shows, they naturally become more familiar with Korean content.
That was what happened with Psy’s “Gangnam Style” in 2012 and later with other stars that followed on the Billboard charts.
English-speaking audiences are becoming more accepting of foreign content thanks to its increasing prevalence.
And then there’s the novelty.
Netflix has been gaining fewer new subscribers in recent years. Among the many factors causing this is that its originals are becoming “less original” and audiences have been craving something new.
The theatrical acting of Korean actors and a plot stuffed with action, humanism, humor and any other aspect that a viewer looks for in a drama series, is all there in Korean shows. They may be too much for some people, but not for viewers who have been waiting for a fresh source of entertainment.
Should the local television industry be concerned?
Certainly, in both business and content aspects.
Local broadcasters worry that production studios will only flock to Netflix — or perhaps other major companies like Walt Disney or Apple. This may seem like an opportunity for the production industry to grow a bigger pie, but it’s only in the short term.
Although Netflix pays good money to its producers and doesn’t demand compensation if the show turns out to be a flop, it doesn’t offer any bonuses if a show becomes a hit.
The case of “Squid Game” started a debate in Korea because Netflix turned out to be the copyright holder of the series and the producers weren’t given any additional incentives despite the show’s incredible success.
Some went as far as to say that Netflix is draining national wealth and talent and that the situation could be aggravated if production companies only want to work with Netflix.
Content diversity also has to be taken into account.
If all producers want to make monster flicks or zombie action dramas, there will be less content to fulfill the needs of audiences looking to consume other types of content.
Netflix dramas may certainly be popular now, but it doesn’t mean that everyone wants to watch such dark and extreme content all the time.
Thank you to: Alfred Guzzetti, a professor at the Department of Art, Film and Visual Studies at Harvard University, Dani Di Placido, film critic, Yu Kon-shik, executive director of KBS’s Public Media Institute, Kang Shin-kyu, a research fellow at the Korea Broadcast Advertising Corporation and Kim Hyuk, a senior managing director at SK Broadband.
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]