The rising worldwide popularity of K-pop and the dawn of the global streaming era has become a business duet that is expanding the boundaries of both sectors.
The exploding interest in South Korean pop culture is fueling the growth of niche streaming services that deliver Korean and pan-Asian movies, TV shows and music to far-flung markets including Brazil, Colombia, Turkey and the U.S. Platforms such as Rakuten Viki, Cinedigm’s AsianCrush and the Kocowa venture among major Korean broadcasters are generating viewership and creating a big secondary market for scripted series known as K-dramas — a movement that will only accelerate South Korea’s maturation into a major player in media and entertainment. For evidence, look no further than the 14 groundbreaking Emmy nominations racked up last month by Netflix’s “Squid Game.”
“We’ve seen this growth in interest of Asian entertainment over the last 10 years and really picking up more recently in the last three to five years,” says Sam Wu, CEO of Rakuten Viki, the streaming arm of the Japanese retail conglomerate. “Through word-of-mouth and social sharing and through new streaming destinations like like Viki and other global and U.S.-based services, introducing Asian content to the U.S. audience really has driven this growing interest and popularity in the market.”
Wu is based in San Mateo, Calif. Kocowa is based in Los Angeles. AsianCrush is run out of New York by David Chu, co-founder and president of DMR, which launched AsianCrush. That service was acquired in January by Cinedigm. All three services offer free ad-supported streaming channels as well as subscription options for access to deep libraries.
“We have users in North America, South America and Europe, and Australia and New Zealand, India,” says Wu, who cites 59 million registered users for Viki’s platforms overall. “We really see this fandom growing, not just here in the U.S., which is really strong in terms of the audience reception, but we’re seeing the popularity really growing everywhere around the world.”
Like Wu, leaders of AsianCrush and Kocowa say the majority of the gains are coming from non-Korean and non-Asian viewers. The audience profile tends to skew largely female, executives say.
“We saw some changes in our audience after the ‘Parasite’ success story,” says KunHee Park, CEO of Kocowa. “Recently we have seen growth with males, and we are trying to expand our audience with LGBT content.”
Netflix is widely credited for busting through cultural biases and perceived audience resistance to watching shows with subtitles or dubbing. The streamer helped make K-drama a genre unto itself by showcasing new and vintage Korean series, including “Sweet Home” and pan-Asian hits such as “Boys Over Flowers,” “Itaewon Class” and “All of Us Are Dead.” The streaming giant’s pledge in early 2021 to invest $500 million in South Korean content raised eyebrows among some — until “Squid Game’s” debut set viewership records for Netflix.
“They saw the potential of K-content through its success in the Asian region. They were correct,” Park says. “I don’t think Netflix is our competition. They have been big contributors to the Korean content industry by bringing these shows to the U.S. and making them a common household experience.”
Kocowa launched six years ago as a joint venture of KBS, MBC and SBS — the Big Three of Korean broadcasting. The company’s structure changed in recent years as SK Telecom also became an equity partner. But the mission of delivering top-tier Korean content in a timely manner (usually 24 hours after domestic premiere) on an authorized platform has not wavered.
Park says Kocowa has seen impressive 40% audience growth levels over the pandemic period. That has helped the service expand by licensing content from other providers on a revenue-sharing basis.
“As time goes by, our revenue is not small anymore. Additionally, any content provider can secure very important market data from our platform,” he says. “That’s why our company wants to be the ultimate destination for Korean content. Our goal is to expand this market. I see a lot of blue ocean water where we can develop.”
The K-drama boom also reflects the growing level of interactivity between fans and content creators. Classic K-dramas come in all genres, shapes and sizes, but they often feature K-pop stars to broaden the appeal, particularly among younger viewers.
Many series are quickly accompanied by original soundtrack record issues that often feature actors warbling a tune or two. The soundtracks are produced to enhance the series and focus fan attention on key moments and plot points.
The traditional practice in South Korea is for a series to shoot four episodes in advance of a series premiere while the remaining are shot as those initial ones air. If the show is popular and well-received, it gets extended. If not, actors may be replaced and storylines hastily changed. Much of the show’s direction rides on public reception and ratings.
“It’s quite a cultural force,” says AsianCrush’s Chu of the interactivity and interconnected nature of Korean content. He also points to the rise of webtoon comics — short-form content that is distributed via YouTube and other online platforms — that have become an IP-generating engine for Korean movie and TV studios.
CJ ENM, the studio behind “Parasite,” has big ambitions to grow in scale and prestige as a content supplier to buyers around the world. CJ ENM in June set a production pact with Paramount Global that calls for the companies to collaborate on projects for the global market. It also gives streamer Paramount+ distribution in South Korea on TVing, partly owned by CJ ENM, which was strategically important to Paramount.
“We’ve been active there for a long time. We saw an opportunity to work with [CJ ENM]. They have aspirations to be more than Korean content company. They felt like they’d done a bunch of a la carte deals to make series but they needed a partner. For us it was a way to get into an important local market without having to invest in local programming. TVing is now our engine in Korea,” says Bob Bakish, president and CEO of Paramount Global.
Chu concurs with Wu and Park that the roots of the current boom came with the popularity of Korean exports across Asia, which proved that as the country’s production values improved, the shows were able to travel. K-dramas are often remade in other Asian markets. And another big trend lately has been K-drama remakes of Western drama formats, such as “Woori the Virgin,” a spin on the sturdy “Jane the Virgin” (Juana la Virgen) telenovela format.
“If we look at the history of what really fueled it, it was in the mid-2000s with shows like ‘Winter Sonata’ and ‘Jewel in the Palace’ that really caught on in Southeast Asia,” Chu says.
The advent of easily accessible streaming technology has created a true global village for TV content. Chu sees a lot of runway for expansion ahead for AsianCrush and its related channels.
“As we’re building up our audience in North America, we’re looking at strategic opportunities for each of our channels and where to take them globally,” Chu says.
Pictured top: Netflix's Korean-language remake of popular Spanish drama "Money Heist" (La Casa del Papel).