[Essay] The significance of K-drama's wins at international awards---②

K-dramas have expanded globally, evidenced by successive international awards. "Yeonmo" winning the International Emmy signifies a shift in cultural perception. While celebrating, it's vital to consider the broader implications for K-drama's sustainability and future growth ....

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Author | Kenny Kihyung, BAE (Senior Producer, KBS International Broadcasting Corporation)


It is not difficult to read the expanded status and boundaries of international award-winning K-dramas. On a global scale, the coordinates of K-dramas have clearly changed. K-dramas have expanded the geographical boundaries of global cultural reception from Asia to the rest of the world. K-drama's status has been elevated by being recognized as having a global reach that transcends cultural discounting. In addition to geographical expansion, K-dramas have also strengthened their cosmopolitan orientation by expanding their narratives and broadening their taste groups. Through these changes, we can see that global popular culture is exhibiting a new media landscape of hybridization. It is hoped that the successive international awards will reaffirm the hybridity, transnationality, and globality of K-dramas and advance the Hallyu discourse from an industrial and cultural context to an audience-centered one.

4. Extending the narrative

Video content is inherently embedded in the socio-cultural environment it represents, meaning that as a cultural product it contains the values and images of a society. Hollywood movies are inherently based on American values and images. Even  and  contain values that reflect the traditional or current desires of our society.

The market characteristic of video content is that it is an experiential good that reflects social desires and triggers consumption. In this sense, it is a pop culture product that triggers and resolves the competition of needs. "Winter Sonata, the original K-drama that was successful overseas, is a romance drama that adds a manga fantasy to the traditional love story. "Winter Sonsta" tapped into the hidden romantic desires of middle-aged Japanese women, something that Japanese dramas hadn't been able to fulfill, and that's why it boomed.

In China, "Dae Jang Geum" owed its success to its universal appeal to Chinese audiences, such as the scourge of the winding wire and the defense of traditional values, and its exquisite narrative of the dramatic success of its protagonist, Jang Geum. This stimulated viewers' fantasies of overcoming status, gender, and occupational discrimination to realize their dreams from the margins. It was a success in empathetic storytelling. "My Love from the Star" and "Descents of the Sun" were also traditional K-dramas in that they were romantic fantasies.

However, recent K-dramas that have won international awards have shown narratives that go beyond the "love at the end" formula popular in Asia. The story of a drama is how we live and what we dream about. It's not just about romance every day. Global drama audiences have come to expect a universal narrative that goes beyond romance and touches on real-life stories, and they want to find different stories and dreams wrapped in new imaginations in dramas. Recognizing this, global OTT platforms have acquired Korean drama production companies with proven storytellers and directors in Asia, accumulated excellent production technology, and acquired low-cost drama production companies with huge capital.

With the wings of production autonomy, which was previously unattainable in Korea, Korean drama producers have been able to use their wits to expand the K-drama narrative in a panoramic way, even in the midst of COVID-19. The universal story of creativity, though not necessarily romance, has moved the world. K-dramas have skillfully blended fictionalized reality and realistic fiction in their narratives to reach audiences around the world. The success of "Squid Game" is attributed to its universal narrative, which, as the BBC noted, explores class conflicts in modern society in a way that resonates with people around the world. "Itaewon Class" and "Vincenzo" are also stories that expose wealth inequality and resonate with international audiences. A variety of narratives have also enriched the repertoire of K-dramas, including the zombie dramas "Kingdom" and "Our School Now," the courtroom dramas "Extraordinary Attorney Woo" and "Boy Judge," and creature disasters such as "Sweet Home" and "Hell" are now commonplace in K-dramas.

The expansion of K-drama narratives has contributed significantly to the cultural diversity of Korean-originated global content. While the Korean language is isolated on the Korean peninsula, Korean narratives have turned to the world. In fact, I would argue that the interest in Korean has exploded thanks to K-dramas. There are countless people who say that K-pop and K-dramas have inspired them to learn Korean and study Korean language and culture.

The expansion of K-drama narratives has been a major driver of taste-driven viewing habits for global audiences. Netflix's strategy to further expand subscribers' content consumption is to shift from a country-by-country approach to a taste-centric approach, and K-dramas are here to stay. However, as an emerging global content, K-drama is not only an OEM(Original Equipment Manufacturing) for a global platform, but also an ODM(Original Development Manufacturing) that satisfies the tastes and preferences of the world through hybridization with its own originality and technology. The trend of popular culture changing from traditional global dominant content symbolized by Hollywood to hybrid global content is changing the landscape globally rather than in a specific region, just like climate change. K-drama, a representative global content that has triggered and promoted this phenomenon, has succeeded in creating a new taste group that accepts hybrid cultures not only in Asia but also in the United States and other parts of the world, and people in the 21st century are gradually breaking away from the traditional habit of accepting foreign cultures through cultural discounting.

5. The novelty of hybridity

American cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai argues that people, images and information, technology, capital, and ideologies are constantly moving across national boundaries, bringing us into an era of post-nationality and globalization. He argues that Filipinos can sing American pop songs better than Americans, or that cricket, which originated in England, was brought to colonial India and indigenized so that cricket is no longer a British sport but an Indian national sport. He predicts a coming transnational era in which a "new imagination" that transcends national boundaries will create broad communities.

It's a brilliant insight. The fact that transnational consumption of foreign-produced images has become an increasingly commonplace behavior lends credence to what he calls the "new mediascape.

But while Apadurai, who was born in India and lives and teaches in the U.S., had an eye for globalization, he was slow to describe the U.S. landscape in which he was grounded. The "global mediascape" he spoke of was outside the United States. The U.S. had very high barriers to non-English video content, and its video consumption market was centered on homegrown content.

Until a few years ago, bothering with subtitles to watch a non-English language movie or show was a very marginal pastime for Americans. "The Oscars are local," Bong Joon-ho wisely pointed out when he said the U.S. video content market was closed. But now Americans can enjoy foreign dramas through 1-inch subtitles. This is the result of globally relevant Hallyu content such as ,  and .

However, it would be a mistake to read this change as "reverse media imperialism. While the one-way, Western-centric flow of the video content industry has certainly changed, the dominant hegemony of global media corporations (read "transnational" but should be "American") remains strong. This is because the market dominance of global media corporations such as Google and Netflix is overwhelming, and the production and consumption of global content, including Korean content, has become highly dependent on this structure. Therefore, it is convincing to say that global popular culture has moved from a one-way flow to a complex system, and the way it has moved is a metamorphosis rather than a transition.

K-dramas are inherently hybrid in terms of the cultural nature of their content. Sim points out that Korean dramas have learned American drama grammar and have been influenced by Japanese anime/manga and Hong Kong films, which have successfully localized American pop culture. By absorbing Western dramaturgy and adding Korean characteristics, K-dramas are able to break away from the local in the process of hybridization and reveal a universal cosmopolitan orientation. K-dramas such as "Kingdom" and "Love Crash Landing" have shown that the global and the local are not divided into opposing dichotomies, but that glocality can be achieved through quality hybrids or hybridization.

Hybridized pop culture content now knows no boundaries. We see the loose reins of Apadurai's thesis finally being tightened as we see Americans embracing the one-inch barrier, not Filipinos singing pop songs or Indians playing cricket. The hybridity of the global media landscape in the early 21st century is a remarkable cultural phenomenon that K-dramas have fostered.

6. The audience decides the prize

It is undeniable that K-dramas are a product of capitalist commodity production and globalized consumer culture. Therefore, the global acceptance of K-dramas is essentially a phenomenon that operates within the industrial mechanism of pop culture commodity production and consumption, but the rapid spread of the habit of enjoyment by overseas fans in an active and collective form has achieved transnational universality, which is a dynamic flow of audience-centered change that goes beyond mere platform cultural imperialism.

In fact, although various diagnoses and explanations have been attempted to explain the global popularity and attention of Korean pop culture content that has been on the periphery of the global scene, most of them have attempted to explain the universality, hybridity, uniqueness, and cost-effectiveness of K-content in terms of the "quality and competitiveness of individual content" or the "competence" of the producers or performers who created it. However, from the perspective of cultural exchange, the phenomenon of K-drama's global appeal and popularity is based on a global and distinct consumer "acceptance". Focusing solely on the competitiveness and competence of K-dramas can lead to a narrow understanding of the multifaceted dynamics that have enabled the global spread of the Korean wave.

It is the global audience that mediates and embodies the international success of K-dramas. At the heart of the active perception and experience of K-drama as a function of its audience is the audience's desire to continue to build, strengthen, and expand its enjoyment. The future of K-drama also depends on the integrated audience experience that occurs when audiences anticipate and fulfill the satisfaction of one text with another. In the future, a sustainable ecosystem for K-dramas will only be achieved when the unified expectation of K-dramas shows a continuous pattern through the audience experience.

Awards are given by the audience, no matter what the organizers or critics say. By winning international awards, our eyes are turned to the global audience, and the eyes of the world are turned to K-dramas once again. Based on the strengthened K-drama brand through the international awards, we expect to further expand our contact with global audiences by accumulating more capabilities to absorb various narratives and tastes. Winning international awards will create positive economic and socio-cultural externalities not only for K-dramas but also for Hallyu content in general. Winning international awards means that K-dramas have achieved cultural and industrial achievements based on positive consumption experiences, and can be interpreted as a sign of sustainable inflow and enjoyment of K-dramas in the future.

Oh, and by the way, I didn't even get to say anything about the international awards.

"Congratulations to the creators of K-dramas, we are proud of you.