South Korea: Utilizing local drama, smaller nets tighten race

SEOUL — In recent years, a boom in local TV dramas — both domestically and across Asia — has provided a windfall for South Korea’s major broadcasters KBS, MBC and SBS. Nonetheless, competition is increasing from other networks, so the Korean TV landscape is shifting.

Apart from national soccer games, ratings are dominated by local TV dramas such as 2005’s “My Lovely Samsoon” from MBC (with a best 50% rating) and 2006’s leader thus far, “The Bizarre Bunch” (KBS, 37% peak).

Family-centered dramas, particularly with strong female characters, have been especially popular, while a string of historical dramas (following smash hits “Jewel in the Palace” and “Emperor of the Sea”) are skedded for later this year.

Exports are booming, with totals estimated at more than $100 million for 2005, roughly 90% of that coming from within the Asian region.

The good times pushed leading pubcaster KBS $50 million into the black in 2005, leading some commentators to question the federal grants it receives ($4.3 million for 2006, with $17.9 million requested for 2007).

At the same time, however, rising profits have encouraged producers to establish independent production companies that work with outside financing and retain local and international rights. Together with rising demands from star management companies, broadcasters are seeing their profits from dramas dwindle.

Imports, meanwhile, struggle to make a dent in this market, with even the high-profile “Lost” starring local actress Kim Yoon-jin relegated to Saturday afternoon on KBS.

Cable and satellite TV, on the other hand, are gaining ground. The Korean Broadcasting Commission reports that cable ratings have jumped from 4% in 2001 to 12% in 2005, with terrestrial channels falling from 39% to 32%. Nonetheless, the terrestrial channels still take up 81% of TV advertising.

New dramas being brought to Mip include SBS’ star-filled “Alone in Love,” about a couple after their divorce; MBC’s “Princess Hours,” which imagines Korea’s royal line down to the present day; and KBS’ “Goodbye, Solo,” centering around multiple couples intertwined in the style of “Love, Actually.”

1. “The Bizarre Bunch,” KBS

2. “Dear Heaven,” SBS

3. “Goodbye to Sadness,” KBS

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