Costumers reign in South Korea

Historical dramas lord it over primetime fare

SEOUL — Kings and queens of ancient Korea rule primetime TV: All four broadcasters are showing historical dramas, and as each show airs twice a week there is at least one period drama on every evening.

This new craze for the old is Koreans’ way of dealing with rough times, Eun Hae-jung of the Korean Broadcasting Institute (KBI) says. “Given all our political and economic problems right now, I think people see hope in watching great leaders of the past and watching how they got us out of the most turbulent of times.”

KBS’s “Founder: Wang Kon” is the most popular of the bunch, grabbing 52% of auds last week, putting it No. 1 in the ratings.

The 120-part series, which began airing last May, traces the political career of the founder of Korea’s Koryo dynasty (918-1392), who was famous for his peaceful and highly moral approach to politics.

More focus is being put on women figures who are often slighted in history texts and period shows.

“Women’s World” is SBS’ story about Nan-chong Chong, a lower-class mid-16th century woman who beat the strict caste system to become a high-ranking official’s wife, wielding power in the politics of the day.

The 50-part series, which began airing in February, pulled a 34% viewing rate recently, making it the second-most-watched show on TV.

Purr-fect ploy

Critics believe modern viewers are attracted to the drama’s strong female characters; others attribute the popularity to catfighting between the king’s concubines.

“Women’s World” producer Jae-hyung Kim says, “My goal was to cast light on historical figures, like Chong, who had a great impact on Korean history but are left virtually unknown today.”

The 100-part “Last Empress” (KBS-2) focuses on Korea’s last queen, Ja-young Min, who fought the Japanese in the 19th century. It began airing May 9 and is already scoring a steady 15% viewing rate.

Koreans didn’t always like historical dramas. In fact, the genre didn’t debut until 1967, and it took 30 years for it to take off. The turning point was KBS’ 1997 show “Tears of Dragon” about a king of the Choson dynasty (1392-1910) that drew mass auds, largely because of the lead actor’s popularity.

History wasn’t made, though, until “Ho Chun,” last year’s top-rated program, which notched up a 60% viewing rate at one point.

The 60-part MBC drama, which traced the adventures of a young man who was destined to become the most famous court physician of the Choson dynasty, succeeded in drawing viewers of all ages with its modern music and dialogue.

Most agree that the historical drama boom is good for the nation. “It rekindles national pride as we see how hard we worked to make Korea what it is,” says KBI’s Youn-kum Ha. “It’s particularly good for the young people who don’t know their own history.”

Some warn against this attitude, however, pointing out that though all these dramas are based on historical facts and focus on real figures, many are embellished with fictitious characters and subplots.

One such case is “Hong Kuk-yong” (MBC), a drama set in the 18th century that has been criticized for overdoing the action scenes to attract viewers. Having hovered around 7%-9% rating for months, the show will end 20 episodes earlier than planned.

The historical drama boom itself will not be cut short, though. Three major broadcasters already have the next historical series lined up.

The only downside to this trend is that historical dramas are not popular export items.