Is Asia's love affair with Korean pop culture fading? A drop in tourism connected to Korean dramas, a pricing bubble that strains foreign broadcasters and trite story lines should be warning signals, industry analysts say.
Nobody disputes the success story. When "Winter Sonata
", a cult hit Korean TV soap opera, was first introduced to Japan in 2003, it was sold at 500 million won ($475,000), peanuts, considering that almost four out of ten Japanese people have seen the drama at least once. In contrast, a major Japanese network recently proposed paying more than 2 billion won to purchase the exclusive right to air another hit Korean TV drama "Super Rookie
" in Japan, which testifies how fast the reputation of Korean television series has grown in overseas market.
The success of well-packaged Korean television series has been at the center of Hallyu or the Korean pop culture syndrome in Asia, which is best demonstrated by "Winter Sonata
" and "A Jewel in the Palace" - "Dae Jang Geum
", a series about a female doctor in the royal palace, set in the Joseon period (1392-1910 A.D.) and produced by Munwha Broadcasting Corporation, one of Korea's three broadcasting giants.
" has been exported to 16 countries including Egypt, Ghana and Japan.
"A Jewel in the Palace" - "Dae Jang Geum
" proved popular enough in Hong Kong to trigger an increase in the number of Hong Kong tourists to Korea. In Taiwan, the drama is now used to advertise Korea on the Taipei subway.
According to Park Jae-bok, overseas contracts manager at MBC Production, an MBC subsidiary that deals with foreign contracts, the network's revenues from the export of soap operas over the past six months has already surpassed that of last year's total revenues.
But the rosy statistics are masking gloomy precursors about the industry's future in overseas markets including China and Japan, the biggest target markets for Korean dramas.
One conspicuous sign is the decrease in the number of foreign tourists on a "Hallyu tour", or a trip to cities where hit Korean dramas were filmed.
The number of foreign tourists to Nami Island, in which "Winter Sonata
" was filmed, has dropped by 38 percent during the first five months of this year, according to the Korea National Tourism Organization.
Some may cite the worsening Korea-Japan relationship as a major factor behind the decrease. More than that, the lack of attractions that can keep the boom even after the drama's popularity has become withered, poses a bigger threat to the industry's future.
"I don't think I will visit Nami Island, although I'm a huge fan of 'Winter Sonata
",' said Asako Nakai, a Japanese tourist from Osaka, told The Korea Herald. NHK, Japan's biggest and only public network, has recently ceased the operation of its official "Winter Sonata
" Web page, as if to reflect the lowering interest in the drama among Japanese.
"In Asian market, Korean dramas are even more expensive than those of Hollywood and Japanese production, although the average production cost is only about one sixth of that of Japan", Park said at a recent seminar on Hallyu, which was co-hosted by the Korea International Trade Association and the Korea Culture Management Institute.
Take price-sensitive Taiwan. According to the Korea National Statistical Office, Videoland, Taiwan's major television network and the biggest distributor of imported television programs, assigned a total of 356 hours for Korean TV series in 2004, which represents about a 50 percent decrease from 2003. The average price for an episode during the time, on the other hand, increased from $3,943 to $5,090.
Meanwhile, many initially enthusiastic Asian fans of Korean soap operas are tiring of the typical fare, consisting of Cinderella stories or love triangles.
"There are just too many secrets of birth in Korean soap operas, which make me tired as time goes by", said another Japanese tourist who wished to remain anonymous.
Ko Jung-min, a senior researcher at Samsung Economic Research Institute, says the only solution is to allow intense local competition to boost the quality of story-telling and thus maintain the popularity of Korean dramas.
"Korean drama's popularity in foreign markets has owed much to the fierce competition for higher viewing rates among local broadcasters", he said. "After all, the biggest driving force for the future success of the genre in foreign markets will also be such productive competition in the country, not anything else".
By Lee Yong-sung