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Korean Dramas Adopt Pre-Produced Format to Mixed Results

Enjoying pan-Asian popularity, Korean TV series have long been known for their live-shoot production format.

Most Korean TV series start airing after shooting just a few episodes. Production gets busier as the shows rush to the end. Actors have been known to receive scripts right before filming starts on all-night shoots, while editors often struggle to deliver a final cut on time. The end result usually meant lower-quality episodes as a series reached its climax.

The 2007 blockbuster series “The Legend” offers a cautionary tale. Despite its mega-budget ($38 million) and three years of preparation, “Legend” did not have enough time for shooting and editing all 24 episodes in advance. As a result, one episode failed to finish editing before the designated airing schedule and its broadcasting station, MBC, had to extend its live news to fill up time.

In spite of such problems, the live-shoot model has enjoyed consistent popularity as it allows series the flexibility to adapt to real time audience feedback: popular characters receive increased screen time and writers may even change plotlines to satisfy audience expectations.

However, the success of KBS’ 2015 series “Descendants of the Sun” opened the industry’s eyes to the potential of a fully pre-produced series. “Descendants” started airing only after production had wrapped.

“The series was set in an imaginary war-torn foreign country. It had to be filmed on location overseas, for which pre-production was necessary,” “Descendants” producer Han Suk-won tells Variety. “Also, we had pre-sold the series’ exclusive broadcast rights in China to video-streaming giant iQiyi. Pre-production was a must since, in China, the entire series had to obtain censorship approval from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television before it went to air.”

The disaster zone medical drama’s huge success in both countries — estimated at 38.8% ratings in South Korea and more than 2 billion views in China — triggered the trend of pre-production. Since “Descendants,” major series such as “Uncontrollably Fond,” “Entourage,” “Scarlet Heart: Ryeo,” “Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth” and “Saimdang, Light’s Diary” have followed the lead.

Though many of them were directly targeting the Chinese market, expecting pre-sales and simultaneous broadcasting, China’s ban of Korean content allegedly due to the deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense missile has altered the situation. Only two episodes of “Hwarang” aired in China, while some series did not clear censorship at all.

“Many Korean dramas have relied on China since the success of ‘Descendants,’ ” Han says. “Since it has become extremely difficult to expect Chinese investment or rights sales now, it is true that the overall production environment for Korean dramas is not as fertile. However, local platforms are being diversified. Telecom giants and internet content service operators are competing to secure more exclusive, original series, with Netflix also jumping into the game. Though the size of their investment might not be as big as [former] partners in China, they will certainly contribute to the pre-production system in Korea.”

Another hurdle has been the disappointing performance of some pre-produced series. “Entourage,” for example, rated below 1% in South Korea.

“It’s an endless dilemma: entirely pre-produced series are given no room to reflect audience feedbacks,” notes a talent management agency’s head, whose actor recently performed in a pre-produced series. “That’s why some pre-produced episodes often get re-edited and sometimes even require reshoots on the day of airing, just like any other live-shoot shows. It may downgrade the overall quality of the show as the whole process is done in a rush.”

Recent hit series including “Goblin,” “Good Manager” and “Defendant” were either partially pre-produced, or not pre-produced at all.

That said, Han believes more producers will recognize the value of completing a series before it airs. “Broadcasting stations and production companies may go back to live-shoot format for now, but in time, more series will be pre-produced,” he says. “It is important for quality dramas to be made under stable production environment.”

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