[Interview] Secrets Behind the Popularity of K-dramas and the Challenges They Face

The drama I mentioned earlier, "A Business Proposal," is based on a web novel and a webtoon. The use of content intellectual property, or IP, not only leads to the success of one work,


Author : Lee Sungmin, professor at Korea National Open University
Date : 2022, April

Q) Recently, in the early 2022, 6 Korean dramas were featured in Netflix's top 10 list. It can be concluded that the world is really captivated by K-dramas. How big is the K-drama craze in the world?

A) K-dramas occupy an important position on Netflix. According to Netflix's own rankings from March 21-27, six of the top 10 non-English TV shows are Korean. Even when considering viewing time for both English and non-English regions, "A Business Proposal(μ‚¬λ‚΄λ§žμ„ )" ranked 4th and "Twenty-Five Twenty-One(μŠ€λ¬Όλ‹€μ„― μŠ€λ¬Όν•˜λ‚˜)" ranked 8th on Netflix. Despite not being aggressively marketed by Netflix, the fact that these two dramas are so popular shows how well K-dramas in general are being received worldwide.

Q) Why do you think K-dramas are so popular around the world?

A) First of all, it is probably due to the high quality of the content. Korea has a very competitive market in the pop culture field, and success requires validation from a demanding audience. Good actors, a talented production team and compelling stories are prepared in such a demanding environment. The second factor is the role of global platforms. Global services such as Netflix have made it much easier for people to access video content from other countries. In this environment, as Korean dramas continue to receive positive responses, more and more people around the world are falling in love with our dramas.

Image from K-Drama on Netflex <Business Proposal> in 2022

Q) It was "Squid Game" that took the world by storm last year and ignited the popularity of K-dramas. If there have been any changes in the K-drama industry after "Squid Game," what aspects have been affected?

A) The significance of the success of "Squid Game" is that it has expanded the perception that K-dramas can become "mainstream" in the global market beyond Asia. Traditionally, K-dramas have been primarily popular in the Asian region, and content planning has focused on that market. However, with the success of "Squid Game," the perception that Korean dramas could be loved worldwide, beyond the Asian region, has expanded, and the horizons of content planning and production have broadened significantly. In addition, as the scalability of Korean dramas has been confirmed, the domestic industry has more opportunities for global expansion than in the past.

If I may add one more thing, "Squid Game" demonstrated the possibility for K-dramas to go beyond the narrow domestic market and attempt more unique works that appeal to global fandoms, as it was tailored to a very specific genre of fandom. I think there has been a shift after "Squid Game" that has created an environment where more "never-before-seen" works can be created in Korea. That's another change after "Squid Game," fostering an environment for the production of more groundbreaking works in Korea.

Q) Recently, a lot of attention was paid to an interview with actress Youn Yuh-jung. She said, "We have always had good movies and dramas." Could this be due to the cooperation with global OTT platforms such as Netflix, which has given wings to the K-drama industry? Are global OTT platforms really increasing their investment in the K-drama industry?

A) There has been a significant increase in the number of global OTT platforms interested in K-dramas. There have been predictions that K-drama production companies will make their biggest profits this year. Disney Plus decided to sign a long-term content supply agreement with domestic production companies for five years, and also decided to invest 500 billion won in the production of the original series "Moving". In 2021, Netflix will invest 55 billion won in Korea. This level of investment is already more than expected for the domestic market, and it seems that this investment will continue because there is an expectation that Korean content can attract subscribers from other countries.

Q) However, despite these global OTTs' investments in Korea, there are concerns about revenue distribution. In the case of Squid Game, despite its global success, additional revenue is exclusively controlled by Netflix. How do you respond to such criticism?

A) Squid Game is made by Korea, but Netflix owns all the rights, and it is Netflix's work. I think this aspect is also unfortunate. It's not just about the distribution of revenue. In terms of the vitality of the works, it's unfortunate that we have no control over these decisions and choices. Fortunately, there has been ongoing criticism and reflection on the limitations of such contracts, especially since Squid Game. I am hopeful that in the future, production investments and contracts will be made on better terms and in ways that better protect creators' rights. For this to happen, our content industry must become more competitive, gain the strength to negotiate on an equal footing with global corporations, and make concerted institutional efforts to protect our rights more rigorously.

Q) Recently, various intellectual property rights such as webtoons, games, and movies have converged with the drama genre. What direction should the K-drama industry take to move forward?

A) The drama I mentioned earlier, "A Business Proposal," is based on a web novel and a webtoon. The use of content intellectual property, or IP, not only leads to the success of one work, but also generates positive responses for related works. In other words, viewers of the drama may become fans of the IP, which will lead them to return to webtoons and webnovels, pay for content, and create a cycle of consumption. Because of these advantages, I believe that such integration and collaboration with IP will become increasingly stronger in the future.

Another anticipated aspect is the growing presence of webtoons in the global market. As the popularity of dramas combines with works of various genres, such as webtoons, there may be opportunities for them to be loved for longer periods of time and in broader regions.

As the industry shifts to an IP-centric model, I believe the most important factor is the longevity of a work's vitality, which must be maintained for a longer period of time than is currently the case. The positive results we are currently experiencing should continue to serve as a catalyst for building ongoing fandom support for sustainable Korean works and IPs in the future.

Q) What kind of support policies do you think are needed for K-dramas to become content that people around the world will enjoy in the future?

I believe that K-dramas are gaining unprecedented opportunities for successful global expansion. What is needed now is to take advantage of these opportunities to create a "structure" for sustainable growth in the future. In this regard, policy efforts are needed. For example, support is needed to enable smaller production companies to grow into large operators capable of working with global corporations. Funding should also be provided for more experimental work. In addition, infrastructures such as virtual studios that can use innovative technologies are needed to maintain the current competitiveness of production. Furthermore, opportunities should be provided for our creators to learn more about cultural diversity and to better understand the global fandom. Therefore, efforts should be made to create a foundation for producing even better content in the future, and to create an environment where capable companies can expand their global business and allow these quality works to be loved worldwide for a longer period of time. (END)

Author : Lee Sungmin, is currently a professor in the Department of Media and Film at Korea Open University. He has conducted numerous studies in the fields of media and content policy and media history in Korea.