Drama market gets globalized, theme-driven


With the new year less than a week away, the drama market merits a moment of reflection. The year 2008 proved to be a trying time for Korean dramas.

Pummeled by an economic crisis and competition from hit American and Japanese series, the domestic market cut down on the number of miniseries it aired in November. Yet despite cutbacks, a few stellar pieces stood out this year that, along with a dramatic increase in theme-driven dramas, softened the blow.

Here is a recap of the highs and lows of 2008, along with a glimpse into 2009.

Drama recession

Around November, KBS, MBC and SBS responded to the economic downturn by slashing their drama budget. KBS discontinued their 7:40 p.m. daily KBS 2 TV dramas, MBC their special weekend dramas and SBS their Friday premium dramas as part of their autumn program reforms.

Various factors contributed to the reduction, including an increase in wages for celebrities and screenwriters, which upped production costs, along with a decrease in advertising.

All three major broadcasting networks are also tightening their 2009 drama budgets and looking for ways to bring down production costs. This includes employing rookie actors and cutting back on overseas filming.

Production companies were also hit hard by the crisis, posting deficits for 2008. JS Pictures, the production company behind SBS’ popular series “Sikgaek,” was in the red, according to a representative of the company.

“Actors’ wages may have been one of the causes for the deficit,” a JS Pictures representative explained. “There are a lot of plans for dramas right now, but everyone is hesitant to start production. Everyone is in a bit of a slump.”

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Chorokbaem Media, the production company behind SBS’ hit drama “Iljimae,” also posted a deficit, stated a representative.

“Accounting-wise we were in the red this year,” explained the Chorokbaem Media representative.

“But that was because of last year’s ‘Lobbyist.’ Dramas that aired this year like ‘Iljimae’ and KBS’ ‘The Land of the Wind’ have been profitable thus far,” he added, maintaining a positive outlook for 2009.

For state-run broadcaster KBS, however, a change in chiefs may make 2009 a rocky year. On Aug. 26, President Lee Myung-bak appointed Lee Byung-soon the new chief of KBS, following the dismissal of former KBS chief Jung Yun-joo.

The best and the chic

Despite the economic crisis, 2008 proved to be an exciting year for the drama market. A movement towards theme-driven miniseries steered the herd away from the classic melodramatic formula. Broadcaster SBS led the trend with “On Air,” “Sikgaek,” “Tazza,” “The Painter of Wind” and their brand new “Terroir.”

The gamble proved to be a success for the drama-about-a-drama “On Air” and the gourmet series “Sikgaek.” MBC’s medical series “New Heart” and its musically-inclined “Beethoven Virus” also struck gold, serving as testimony to the newfound popularity of themed dramas.

MBC’s sweeping 50-episode epic “East of Eden” and their historical “Isan,” however, highlighted the continuing power of the tried-and-tested. And SBS’ hit “Iljimae” walked the middle road with its modern take on historical romance.

Yet, one stellar drama served as a beacon of hope for the future of Korean dramas. Though it failed to garner high viewer ratings, KBS’ “Worlds Within” sported all the trappings of a top notch work: a supremely talented cast, director and scriptwriter.

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Like “On Air,” “Worlds Within” was a miniseries that explored the drama-making process and employed the star power of a high profile cast, but the chemistry between celebrities Song Hye-kyo and Hyun Bin turned the series into a poignant and riveting tale, while skilled supporting actors – Uhm Ki-joon, Bae Jong-ok and Kim Yeo-jin – added depth and color.

But it was the collaborative fireworks produced by directing and writing duo Pyo Min-soo and Noh Hee-kyung that took “Worlds Within” to the next level. “Full House” director Pyo utilized savvy collaged cuts of various scenes on a black background to show characters in different locations from various points-of-view simultaneously, while “Goodbye Solo” screenwriter Noh Hee-kyung spiced up her dialogue with the harsh and pulpy talk of the gritty drama production room, while exercising just the right amount of control in the area of romance and friendship.

Dramas of 2009

Female warriors and old romances will be lighting up the small screen in 2009. KBS’ “Iron Empress” and SBS’ “Ja Myung Go” will be turning the spotlight on the female fighter, while MBC’s “I Love You” and KBS’ “Again My Love” will explore relationships between the elderly and the middle-aged.

Production company Group Eight looks set to mix things up with their upcoming “Tamna is the Island.” Set on 17th century Jeju Island, the plot revolves around a girl diver, a British native and an aristocrat. Add to that four writers and the use of a French actor for an entirely new take on historical romance.

Media entertainment group On-Media will be upping the ante by starting a channel devoted to American dramas. On-Media’s new channel, OCN Series, will bring in hit shows like CSI, Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City. The channel goes on air on Jan. 1.

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By Jean Oh



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