Is it time for South Korea’s TV drama series to move over and make way for Korean unscripted entertainment — namely game shows and reality shows?
While 2003 drama series “Jewel in the Palace,” or the more recent “Crash Landing on You,” “Memories of the Alhambra,” “Mr. Queen,” “Love (ft. Marriage and Divorce)” and “Descendants of the Sun” have for years successfully tugged at emotional heartstrings across Asia, the unscripted category has equally long been a staple of Korean domestic TV.
Korean variety shows have been a catch-all with multi-generational appeal. Talent contests have worked well in the home market, but often were too quirky — too much dialogue, or distracting titles flashing across the screen — which meant that they were best exported as formats rather than finished shows.
Examples of those include MBC’s 2015 hit “King of Mask Singer,” which became “The Masked Singer” for Fox in the U.S. (and spinoff “The Masked Dancer”), and CJ ENM and Signal Entertainment’s “I Can See Your Voice,” which has now been adapted in 27 other territories.
But now, the era of global streaming is making Korean reality shows and formats ever hotter.
In February, Netflix said that it plans to double its output of unscripted Korean shows from four to eight in 2023. Days later, Amazon’s Prime Video, which has far fewer subscribers in Korea but substantial numbers in English-speaking territories and some Asian markets, unveiled its first Korean reality product: “Jinny’s Kitchen,” which sees a starry cast, including BTS’ V, attempt to run a Korean restaurant overseas and will launch later this spring.
Netflix, the largest streamer within Korea and also the largest purveyor of K-content overseas, is able to leverage the momentum it has gained through drama successes such “Squid Game,” “Hellbound” and “Vincenzo,” to tempt audiences with further Korean content. But its data shows the reality category is growing in its own right.
Its 2020 dating show “Single’s Inferno” was intended to fill a gap in the market for the platform’s Korean viewers. But it also became the first Korean unscripted show to debut on the streamer’s global top 10 non-English TV list. Season 2 featured in the global top 10 for four weeks and pulled in higher viewing hours.
Now Netflix is enjoying multi-territory success with “Physical: 100,” a fitness survival game that features 100 men and women, athletes, sports influencers and rank outsiders, enduring hardship and performing feats in their quest for the best body.
The show has logged 192 million viewing hours globally since its debut in January. At its peak, “Physical: 100” was the top non-English show in the world on Netflix, and No. 2 for all shows globally on the platform. It was also in the Netflix’s top 10 in 80 countries at its peak.
With an eye on diverse international audiences, Netflix and the other streamers have sought to keep on-screen sex and violence quotients lower than U.S. or British reality shows. Korean camaraderie and emotional warmth have largely been retained, making most shows relatively wholesome.
The streamers have been able to give the genre another, more technical fillip. “Unlike TV broadcasters that air an episode each week, the production of our entire season is completed before the drop. This enables us to deliver higher quality and provide localized subtitles, as well as dubbing in some countries, so that viewers in over 190 countries can enjoy the show at the same time,” says Yoo Ki Hwan, Netflix manager for unscripted content in Korea.
Other companies are jostling to be purveyors of Korean reality formats in the international marketplace. This time last year, Banijay unveiled two at MIPTV, “Exchange,” which combines separated couples and their social media activity, and “Bloody Game,” a survivor format, but one in which the eliminated contestants are given a second chance.
CJ ENM (which now comprises three TV content factories) showcased two reality formats at last month’s Hong Kong FilMart: music-based “My Boyfriend Is Better” (airing on CJ’s Mnet since February), and dieting show “ZeroSum Game” in which contestants attempt to maintain exactly the same weight for seven days.
The reality trend has also made powerhouses of the sector’s key executives. Park Wonwoo, co-creator of “Masked Singer,” has struck deals with the U.S.’ Media Ranch and Fox Alternative Entertainment through his DiTurn company. Hwang Jin Woo, former president of CJ ENM, and Kim In-soo, former head of formats at SBS, have set up their own shingle, called Something Special, which they describe as an agency representing format producers. Among its first deals were pacts with the U.K.’s ITV, China’s iQiyi and in the U.S., with Viacom subsidiary VIS.
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