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[THE HIGH TIDE OF THE KOREAN WAVE(33)] Whetting U.S. appetite for Korean TV dramas

2008/04/24 Source

In the last few years, Korean films, TV dramas and pop music have become immensely popular abroad, a phenomenon known as the Korean Wave. This is the 33rd in a series of essays by a select group of scholars and journalists looking at the spread of Korean pop culture in Southeast Asian countries and beyond. - Ed.

Following is an email interview with Tom Larsen, president of YA Entertainment, the largest distributor of Korean TV drama DVDs in the United States. - Ed.

The Korea Herald: What is the current market position of Korean TV dramas in the U.S. market? How are they perceived in comparison with mainstream U.S., Chinese and Japanese programming?

Tom Larsen: Like most other TV programming from international markets, Korean TV dramas are generally considered a specialty entertainment niche here in the United States. Having said that, the popularity of Korean TV dramas in the United States has grown dramatically over the past five years. Korean TV dramas are now widely recognized in the United States as a leading entertainment option within the growing Asian entertainment category.

Several major U.S. cities now have a "second-tier" TV station which often broadcasts various Korean TV drama programs during primetime hours. Some of these smaller-scale TV stations have recently started to include English subtitles when they broadcast Korean TV dramas. However, the majority of avid Korean TV drama fans usually watch Korean TV dramas on DVD rather than on TV. (These TV stations are relatively few, and their schedules are too unpredictable.) My company, YA Entertainment, has been releasing Korean TV dramas on DVD with English subtitles since 2003. We now have over 60 individual titles in our DVD catalog.

When compared to Chinese and Japanese TV programming, I believe Korean TV dramas are by far the most popular among mainstream Americans. Even in the Chinese-American community, Chinese-language TV stations will air Korean TV dramas dubbed in Mandarin or Cantonese. Korean TV dramas are perceived as higher quality and more entertaining than Chinese TV programming and definitely more accessible than Japanese TV programming.

KH: Which Korean dramas are popular in the United States (in terms of genres, themes, character or title)?

TL: Our best selling titles over the past five years include "Stairway to Heaven", "Dae Jang Geum" (Jewel in the Palace), "My Name is Kim Sam-soon", "Damo", "Princess Hours", "All About Eve", "The Snow Queen", and "My Girl".

As the list above shows, Americans enjoy all types of Korean TV dramas: love stories, comedies, and historical epics. It's all about the storylines, cast (acting), production values, and soundtracks. If those four core elements are done very well, then it doesn't matter if the TV drama is a comedy or a tragic love story. Americans will like it.

My personal all-time favorites include "Sandglass", "Damo", "Glass Slipper", "All About Eve", "Save the Last Dance for Me", "Dae Jang Geum", and "Love Letter".

Some of the most popular actors include: Bae Yong-joon, Kim Rae-won, kwon Sang-woo, Jang Dong-gun, Kim Min-joon, and Lee Byung-hun.

The most popular actresses include: Choi Ji-woo, Lee Da-hae, Ha Ji-won, Lee Young-ae, Son Ye-jin, Bae Doona, Kim Ha-neul and Yoon Eun-hye.

KH: Who is watching Korean dramas in the United States? Why do they choose to watch Korean dramas and how do they respond?

TL: We have conducted multiple surveys over the past five years, surveying thousands of Korean TV drama "fans" in the United States. Interestingly, only 5 percent of survey respondents described themselves as "Korean". Therefore, roughly 95 percent of the people purchasing our Korean TV drama DVDs are not of Korean descent. The majority are Caucasian, Japanese-American, Chinese-American, and Filipino-American. And we are also finding strong growth in the Vietnamese and Latino/Hispanic communities.

As for gender, our surveys show that over 65 percent of Korean TV drama fans are female. However, based upon the dozens of e-mails I receive everyday from fans, the breakdown seems to be more like 50 percent male, 50 percent female.

Americans choose to watch Korean TV dramas for many different reasons. Korean TV dramas have many strengths (some of which I describe below), and each strength attracts certain subsets of viewers. More often than not, the response is positive. People describe Korean TV dramas as "addicting", "powerful and engrossing", and "highly entertaining".

Over the past few years, more and more people have told me that they are increasingly "turned off" by standard American TV programming. These days it seems to be a common practice among American TV show producers to create boring and superficial story concepts and then try to inject them with over-the-top sex, violence, and crime. (I personally define TV programming that includes an overabundance of unnecessary sex, violence, and crime as "garbage content"). More and more Americans are getting tired of meaningless "garbage content" on TV. So they are looking for something new, something with real substance and emotion. Something that engages them, and makes them feel something. More and more Americans are turning to alternative TV programming like Korean TV dramas.

KH: What are the strengths of Korean dramas?

TL: Korean TV dramas have many strengths. Here is a quick list that comes to mind:

- Korean TV drama series have a set beginning and ending. As you know, they usually last for only 16-24 episodes. It's refreshing to know how many total episodes there are before you even start watching a drama series. And the total number of episodes is very manageable, much like an extended movie. This contributes to the "addictive nature" of Korean TV dramas. (Once you reach the middle episodes, you want to stay up late at night to finish it and see how it ends.). In contrast, many U.S. TV dramas drag on and on over many seasons (even generations!).

With no end in sight, it's difficult to make a commitment to become fully engrossed in many U.S. TV dramas.

- Korean TV dramas explore common human themes: family, friendship, relationships, loyalty, respect, true love, etc. These themes make up the very thread of humanity. The majority of Korean TV dramas seem to emphasize "family values" and "family relationships". Many of the Korean TV dramas that I have seen include a lot of scenes where the main family in the story is eating together around the dinner table and discussing important family issues. There is a "realness" about Korean TV dramas. A friend told me this the other day: "Korean dramas embrace big emotions, the joy and pain and love and ache and hope that we all feel but rarely express. That kind of melodrama is corny, critics sniff, but the heart of Korean programs lies in their guileless ability to show us the truth of what we all feel". Given these reasons, Korean TV dramas are able to transcend cultural barriers and touch people all over the world.

- People comment to me all the time about the high production values: Beautiful cinematography, unique locations, amazing costumes, sophisticated camera shots/angles, etc. The final product is very stylish and attractive, with arguably some of the highest TV production values in the world.

- Korean TV dramas are well-written stories with strong dialogue and excellent acting. The producers, directors, writers, and actors are indeed master storytellers. I can tell that the production crew puts a lot of time and thought into developing each twist, turn, and cliffhanger. Many people have described Korean TV dramas to me as "emotional roller coaster rides". The plots are usually character-driven, with all of the main characters being well-defined and all the plotlines ultimately resolved. And for the most part, audiences can easily relate to the characters, situations, and conflicts that arise. And the actors bring so much passion and powerful emotion to their performances.

- Korean TV dramas usually offer a refreshing portrayal of "love" and "affection" on the TV screen, something with which American TV programming has lost touch. On American TV, "love" is often just sex. But in Korean TV dramas, love takes so many different shapes: genuine sensitivity, service, friendship, honesty, support, restraint, etc. It's more "love from the heart" rather than "love from the senses". Korean writers and producers have truly mastered the "art of affection".

- The music soundtracks in Korean TV dramas are heartfelt and emotional, true reflections of the stories being told. The music seems to capture all the right emotions for the drama itself, and for specific characters and scenes. The music is indeed central to the whole experience, and it can usually stand on its own. Whereas Americans usually do not purchase and collect the soundtracks of top American TV hits like "Desperate Housewives" or "ER" (where music is used in a more casual way), Korean TV drama fans in the United States do collect the music soundtracks (or OSTs) for Korean TV dramas.

- Korean TV dramas are a wonderful "window" into the beautiful Korean culture. I hear this scenario all the time: Someone stumbles upon a Korean TV drama and they love it (they get "hooked"). Then they become curious about the Korean culture, and they start reaching out to Korean people in their local communities. They try Korean food, and even learn some Korean words. Some even end up traveling to Korea to tour the sites. Korean TV dramas play an important and indispensable role in introducing Korean culture to many Americans. In short, Korean TV dramas are helping to bridge two cultures.

KH: What are the weaknesses of Korean dramas?

TL: Like any good entertainment genre (or art), different people will enjoy and dislike different things. So it's hard to categorically label something as a "weakness". Having said that, here are a few areas about which I sometimes hear complaints:

- Some of the various plot developments can be a bit repetitive and overused (love triangles, tragic diseases, memory loss). Of course, some people find this charming, in its own unique way.

- Although "chance meetings" are part of conventional drama (in any country), it seems that Korean TV dramas utilize chance meetings a little too often. For example, even though there are 10 million people in Seoul, the two main characters in a given drama just happen to run into each other over and over again.

- Some Korean TV dramas can be a bit too slow in terms of pace. I hear some people complain about middle episodes dragging on without enough important plot developments. Others complain about too many "flashback replays" that slow down the dramatic momentum. (A flashback replay is when something important happens in the story, and then the main characters keep remembering that same important scene over and over again.)

- Something else that I would personally consider a weakness (or maybe just a "pet peeve"): A good number of Korean TV dramas include some Western actors in minor supporting roles (a typical occurrence is for a Westerner to play some businessperson doing business with a Korean conglomerate). For the most part, not only are these Westerners terrible actors, but it seems they are forced to read an English script that is written by a Korean writer. The end result is that these Western actors sound silly as they speak English as though it is not their native language. The whole piece comes off as very awkward and unnecessarily distracting.

KH: Are there any language/culture problems concerning English subtitle translations?

TL: Oh yes! This topic alone could be the basis for an entire book. It is very difficult to create high quality English subtitles for Korean TV dramas. It takes four separate steps over several months to create English subtitles just for just one drama series. It's not easy to balance between literal translation versus capturing original intent and meanings. Of course the subtitles need to be accurate, but they also need to be as short and concise as possible so that viewers have enough time to read them before they disappear off the screen.

Here are just two quick examples of issues that my subtitle team deals with on a day to day basis:

A very common situation is when a woman calls an older male friend as "oppa". In the dictionary, "oppa" means "a woman's elder bother". In this case, if we translated "oppa" as "big brother", it would really confuse our American viewers (since the two characters are not blood-related). So instead, we just use the character's name and/or leave it out entirely. For example, instead of "Oppa (Big brother), please come here", we would write: "Kyung-Min, please come here" or simply just "Please come here". Incidentally, the word "oppa" is used so often in the dramas that by default it becomes one of the first Korean words that Americans learn.

Another situation is the use of sayings like "Jugeullae?" or "Jugkosipo?" Of course one easy option for us is to translate this literally as "Do you want to die?" However, although an accurate translation, it would sound quite disturbing in English under many circumstances. The "real feeling" behind the phrase does not carry over very well to English. So in many cases, we would translate "Jugeullae?" or "Jugkosipo?" as "Don't make me mad", or "You better be careful", or "You better watch it".

When I first started to produce Korean TV drama DVDs, many people told me: "Mainstream Americans will not accept watching long, foreign TV series with English subtitles. Americans don't like reading subtitles". However, for the most part, that has not been the case. As recent primetime U.S. TV shows like "Lost" and "Heroes" have demonstrated, mainstream America is slowly but surely waking up to the idea of watching programming with English subtitles.

KH: How did you get involved with the business of introducing Korean dramas to the U.S. market?

TL: I spent some time in Korea in the early 1990s, and I fell in love with the culture. When I returned home to the United States, I wanted to share and introduce the Korean culture to my family, friends, and neighbors (at one point, my "big dream" was to become the Ambassador to South Korea). I decided to take a Korean language course. My Korean language professor used a Korean TV drama to teach us the language (the drama was called "Sunrise"). Monday through Thursday we would study the Korean script for a specific episode learning new vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, etc. Then, each Friday, my professor would show us the complete 50-60-minute episode that we had just studied that week. My fellow classmates and I were so captivated by the drama. That's when I realized two things: (1) Korean TV drama programming could be popular in the U.S. market; and (2) using Korean TV dramas was the perfect vehicle for me to share the Korean culture in the United States.

After that realization, I needed to decide the proper distribution platform to use. I knew it would be difficult to set up a TV station or cable channel and try to get coverage all across the United States. So I decided to use the relatively new DVD platform. DVD provided many advantages, one of which was being able to reach just about anyone in any part of the country. And of course people could watch DVDs at their own convenience without commercials or inconvenient TV schedules. And most importantly, DVDs provided an easy way for people to share Korean TV dramas with their friends. I hear this all the time: "My friend loaned me his/her DVD copy of 'Stairway to Heaven', and now I'm hooked too! What other Korean TV dramas do you recommend?"

I remember my first meeting with a Korean TV drama industry executive back in 2002. I presented to him my plan on how I wanted to acquire the distribution rights to some Korean TV drama programs, create English subtitles, and distribute the programs on DVD to "mainstream America". He was speechless for about 30 seconds. Then he sort of laughed and asked me, "Why?" He asked, "Outside of Korean-Americans, who in the United States would be interested in watching Korean TV shows?" He thought I was absolutely crazy. I will never forget that experience. Fortunately I was able to convince him, and now my company has over 60 Korean TV drama titles in its catalog. We distribute our DVDs all over the United States through major retail stores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, Costco,, etc, as well as thousands of independent retail stores. Here is our full catalog: Open the link

Like I said before, the popularity of Korean TV dramas in the United States has grown so much over the past five years. When I first started with this idea, Korean TV dramas were difficult, if not impossible, to find (especially with English subtitles). Now, after only five years, our Korean TV drama DVDs are on the shelves of major retail chain stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble. In fact, I have pictures of our DVDs sitting side-by-side on the store shelves next to "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost". It's so amazing to think about.

KH: What should Korean production companies and TV networks do to produce better Korean dramas and promote them effectively on the U.S. market?

TL: Over the past 8-12 years, I think the Korean TV production companies have produced some of the best overall TV programs in the world. I'm not sure I can give them any suggestions on how to produce even better TV dramas. However, I can offer one piece of advice: as tempting as it is, I hope producers, directors, and writers do not try to imitate recent Western TV trends. I have a feeling that Korean writers and producers are more and more tempted to incorporate more unnecessary sex, violence, and other "garbage content" into their drama programs. I am sure there are some who want to "push the limits" and be the first producer to try something "" in their dramas. But if this were to happen, it would be a huge disappointment for consumers in overseas markets like the United States. The U.S. TV industry already provides the world with enough "garbage content". We don't need any more. I believe adding more "garbage content" to Korean TV dramas would ultimately hinder the spread of the Korean Wave.

To answer the second part of the question...

I think the most effective way to further promote Korean TV dramas in the United States would be to arrange for one of the four major U.S. TV networks and/or one of the top 4-5 cable channels to broadcast a Korean TV drama with English subtitles (it doesn't even need to be in primetime). I know this idea is easier said than done. However, over the past five years my company has seen a lot of success in expanding the home video market. Together with many other pioneers we have expanded the Korean TV drama market considerably. We now have enough solid data, history, evidence, and the right key messages to push for this next important step. If a major U.S. TV outlet were to broadcast a Korean TV drama, it would exponentially increase all the grassroots efforts that have been done over the past five years. The time is right. We can't just wait for a "Winter Sonata moment" to happen here in the United States (like it did in Japan). We need to make it happen. My wonderful team, colleagues, partners, and I are working hard to make it happen. Someday soon a major U.S. TV outlet will broadcast a Korean TV drama series to millions of Americans.

On another note, I know various Korean TV production companies want to create their own "24-hour drama cable channel" in the United States. I think this is a wonderful idea (especially after a major U.S. TV outlet first broadcasts a Korean TV drama). But the problem is that the United States does not have room for 5-6 separate cable channels dedicated to Korean TV dramas. And only one party or source by themselves cannot provide all the wonderful Korean TV drama content. My point is that all the individual parties need to overcome their competitive issues and work together for one common goal. That is the best way to effectively tackle and thrive in a large and complex foreign market like the United States.

Also, to effectively promote Korean TV dramas and the Korean Wave here in the United States, I believe that many major initiatives need to be lead by local Americans. If a Korean person from Seoul comes to the United States and says "Korean TV dramas are wonderful and everyone in the United States should watch them", the effect will not be so great (because of course a Korean person believes in and enjoys Korean TV programming!) But if an American stands up and says that same message, the overall effect would be much greater. More local people would be intrigued, and they would be more likely to investigate why this American person is so passionate about Korean TV dramas. They would be more likely to think, "If this American person really enjoys Korean TV dramas/movies/music, perhaps I would enjoy them too".

KH: What is your view on the outlook of Korean TV dramas in the United States and beyond?

TL: I am naturally very bullish on the outlook of Korean TV dramas in both the United States and beyond. My wonderful team and I have a front-row seat to the daily expansion of the Korean Wave in the United States. Without a doubt, Korean TV dramas are the engine behind the Korean Wave. I am a big believer. And there are many other big believers here in the United States. Korean TV drama writers and producers are brilliant. They just need to hold on to their "magic formula", and continue to innovate without imitating Western TV trends.

KH: Any additional comments regarding Korean dramas in the U.S. market?

TL: I know, of course, that Korean TV dramas are made for Korean audiences. However, I believe that sometime soon, if not already, total Korean TV-drama viewership will be greater outside of Korea. The number of non-Korean viewers will be greater than the number of Korean viewers. This is an amazing point to ponder, and the implications for Korean TV drama producers and writers are enormous.

As Korean TV dramas continue to increase in popularity, it would be wonderful for the U.S. fans to be able to interact more with the actors and actresses. (press conferences, academic symposiums, concerts, conventions, etc).

It's an honor for me to help share the Korean culture here in the United States. Learning about and experiencing Korean culture has blessed and enhanced my life. I know many Americans feel the same way as I do. And now for many Americans, watching a Korean TV drama is their "first taste" of Korea.

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