By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Chris Shin, a 34-year-old graduate student in Seoul, watches "Grey's Anatomy" on her personal media player, every morning while riding the subway to go to school.
"I'm really addicted to the show. Sometimes, I get so caught up in the show that I almost miss my stop", she laughs.
Shin has been a huge fan of the show for the past few months, downloading the latest episodes of Grey's Anatomy" from the Internet.
Even though "Grey's Anatomy" is currently airing on KBS2 (dubbed in Korean) and CGV (subtitled in Korean), Shin prefers watching it at her own leisure. "There are times when I go home too late to watch it on TV. So I just download it and watch it whenever I can", she said.
Like Shin, more and more Koreans are now hooked on American shows, which they download from the Internet and watch on cable channels and DVDs. The latest episodes of hit shows like "Prison Break", "C.S.I. Crime Scene Investigation", "24", "Alias", "Lost", "Desperate Housewives", "House" and even old shows such as "Sex and the City", and "Friends" are easy to find if you know where to look.
"Midjok" (미드족), a term which combines the Korean words for American drama and clan, is used to describe the craze.
On the Internet, there are dozens and dozens of fan cafes and online communities dedicated to American shows. Some of the biggest Internet fan clubs for American dramas boast over 100,000 members.
Online communities offer a place for fans to share their views about their favorite dramas and actors. Fans also share information on where to download the latest episodes. Some of the show's episodes are already uploaded on file-sharing Web sites, only a few hours after it aired in the U.S.
Fans themselves spend hours translating the English scripts into Korean, and add subtitles to the video files. The subtitles help fans who cannot speak English well, or who are trying to learn English.
American dramas have always been around, but lately it seems there is a sudden explosion in their popularity. Why are Koreans suddenly going crazy over American dramas?
It seems part of the reason is Korean audiences' dissatisfaction with homegrown dramas.
While Asian audiences are still enthralled by Korean dramas, Koreans themselves seem to be getting tired of the same story lines; a poor girl falling in love with a rich boy or tangled love triangles.
On the other hand, there is variety in American shows, whether its romance, comedy, suspense, action or crime. It seems like there is something for everyone.
Kang Mee-eun, a mass communications professor at Sookmyung Women's University, said Koreans watch American dramas because of the better story lines and scripts.
"The scripts of American dramas are great. It's not the power of the actor or the actress, but the power of the script. In Korean dramas, they focus on the stars playing the roles in the dramas. In dramas like 'Ally McBeal' or 'Prison Break', each episode is strong and tight. It's like a piece of art", she told The Korea Times.
Kang, herself a fan of American dramas, said the shows are quite unpredictable, compared to Korean dramas where you can easily tell how the story will unfold.
"A lot of the times, when you are watching the episode you don't know what will happen. It's very unpredictable for the viewer. Korean dramas, on the other hand, are very predictable. You get very bored easily", she said.
"The American dramas are large in scale. For instance, 'Prison Break' airs for 45 minutes, but they show all the different regions of U.S. during that time", said Shin Hye-sun, 38, a recent fan. "The shows also pull you in, demand your entire attention".
"The American dramas, because so much is spent to produce it, offer diverse topics", said Jung Eun-mi, 28, an office worker in Daegu who spends at least two hours a day watching the American shows.
Lately, Korean dramas appear to have taken inspiration from hit American shows. The MBC drama "H.I.T"
., which stars actress Go Hyun-jung
, has been compared to "C.S.I". "Air City
", starring Choi Ji-woo
and Lee Jung-jae
, is similar to "LAX" since both are set in an international airport.
For some, the shows are a way to improve their English.
Nam Yun-jung, a 26-year-old who works for the Korea Institute for International Economic policy, said watching American dramas is a fun way to improve her English language skills. She wants to get used to listening to English when watching her favorite shows.
Nam started watching the sitcom " Friends " in 2000, but it was "Prison Break" that started her fascination with American dramas. Since then, she has watched more American shows such as "Gilmore Girls" and "Criminal Minds".
The increasing number of Korean characters in American dramas is also contributing to the interest. Many Koreans started tuning in to watch the hit drama "Lost" because of popular Korean actress Kim Yunjin
, who played a key role. Korean American actor Daniel Dae Kim
also co-starred in the series. It was one of the rare times when a Korean actress played a major role in a primetime American drama.
Shin said she was initially interested in watching "Grey's Anatomy" because of Korean-Canadian actress Sandra Oh, who received rave reviews and awards for her portrayal of tough Dr. Christina Yang. "Her role is fascinating because it's not a stereotype of a Korean-American, and she's a good actress", she said.
Cable companies On Media and CJ Media have been showing over 30 American shows on their channels. On Style channel has been replaying the entire six seasons of "Sex and the City" for the past year. OCN recorded high ratings when it held C.S.I. Day, showing episodes of the show continuously for 24 hours. Another C.S.I. Day is scheduled for June 9.
Major Korean broadcasting networks have belatedly realized the immense popularity of American dramas.
"Prison Break" aired in the U.S. in August 2005, but it was only last February when cable channel Super Action started broadcasting the show in Korea. The series' popularity among Korean fans surfaced when the lead actor Wentworth Miller visited Seoul in February as a model for local brand Beanpole Jeans.
However, SBS only began showing "Prison Break", dubbed in Korean, on May 26. The show garnered high ratings despite the fact that it was shown past midnight. Even though the show's first two episodes aired from 12:11 a.m. to 1:49 a.m., the nationwide ratings came out at 6.1 percent and 6.7 percent respectively. Usually, shows aired at the same time get zero to three percent ratings.
MBC is currently showing "C.S.I. Miami", while KBS2 is showing "Grey's Anatomy" and "Ugly Betty".
Even if the main networks are starting to air American dramas, fans are not likely to stop downloading episodes from the Internet or buying pirated DVDs. Pirated DVD sellers have expanded from just selling movies, to selling American drama series.
Despite the fact that most people know pirated DVDs and downloading shows from the Internet violate intellectual property rights, they continue to do it. Pirated DVDs are cheaper than the original DVD sets, which on the average cost 50,000 won for a season's worth of episodes. Downloading episodes from the Internet costs nothing.
However, the enactment of the U.S.-Korea free trade agreement is likely to lead to tougher regulations and stiff penalties on violations of intellectual property rights. Both countries agreed to shut down Web sites that allow unauthorized reproduction, distribution, or transmission of copyright works. For Korea, this means closing Web sites that permit unauthorized downloading of copyright works, as well as peer-to-peer file sharing services.
"Most don't realize that downloading is illegal. Some are aware it is illegal but they still do it because it is convenient and they also know it's hard for the authorities to catch them", Kang said.