Well before the “Squid Game” craze in 2021, global streaming platform Netflix enjoyed the first mover’s advantage here when it released all episodes of the megahit “Kingdom” series at one time in 2019, spurring a new trend in the Korean content industry.
Binge-watching quickly caught on in Korea -- where viewers were used to getting daily or weekly releases of new episodes -- with streaming platforms offering must-watch content with unique and powerful stories.
With the heated video streaming competition, broadcasters and streamers have made different attempts to promote their shows, allowing viewers to find their own ways to consume media.
End of seasons, rise of parts
While it is now common for terrestrial broadcasters and streaming services alike to order additional seasons of projects after confirming public and critical response, that was not always the case. One-off drama series with no plans for additional seasons had long been the norm.
TvN’s 2017 series “Stranger” was a rare example that offered a second season just after the arrival of Netflix here in 2016. Not long later, Netflix’s “Kingdom” (2019), tvN’s “Hospital Playlist” (2020) and SBS’ “Penthouse” (2020) all proved that expanded stories spanning multiple seasons could continue to satisfy drama lovers.
Multiple-season shows have quickly become mainstream in Korea. Second seasons of “Yumi’s Cells” (2021) and “Work Later, Drink Now” (2021) have been released, and second seasons are confirmed to be in the works for “Squid Game,” “D.P.” (2021), “Hellbound” (2021) and “All of Us Are Dead” (2022).
Recent releases, however, are exploring yet another way of expanding their stories.
A couple of smash-hit series -- “Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area” and “Alchemy of Souls,” which premiered in the latter half of 2022 -- continued their stories with a part two, rather than a second season. Netflix’s blood-soaking revenge drama “The Glory” and Disney+ crime action series “Big Bet” are scheduled to return with a second part as well.
At global streaming platforms Disney+ and Netflix, the release timetables for their recent series were not impulsive or fickle decisions.
“Taking into consideration the viewing habit, project’s genre and storytelling, we are trying to offer the best viewer experience in many ways,” a Walt Disney Co. Korea official told The Korea Herald on Jan. 12.
Explaining that the service released all six episodes of its fantasy thriller “Connect” at once in December 2022, Walt Disney Co. Korea said that the service will not limit itself to release originals in just one way.
At Netflix, “The Glory” has been split into two parts to enable viewers to enjoy the show even more, the company said.
“‘The Glory’ part one allows fans to be in Dong-eun’s shoes, preparing to get her revenge, while part two is going to show how the revenge unfolds,” a Netflix official said.
Viewing habits vary greatly vary and streamers are going to great lengths to satisfy a wide range of drama fans.
“All episodes of ‘Monstrous’ were released at once. And ‘Work Later, Drink Now 2’ was presented in a weekly basis. Our latest action thriller ‘Island,’ which premiered in December, will return with part two, because the series shifts its focus to different characters in the upcoming story,” said an official at Tving.
While agreeing that the varying strategies might enhance viewer experience, culture critic Kong Hee-jung says that such decisions have become an essential element of streaming platforms' survival strategy amid the heated competition between numerous content providers.
According to the critic, binge-watching has become big in Korea, and Netflix definitely enjoyed the first mover’s advantage, seeing an increase in paid subscribers and unique visitors. But viewers have too many platforms to visit, content to watch and services to pay.
“The pie for the streamers is not growing as viewers are leaving platforms to seek content that suits their taste. Content providers seem to have come up with the strategy of separating a series into multiple parts, hoping to make users stay for a longer period of time," Kong told The Korea Herald.
“Different from multiple-season shows, the series that are divided in parts -- mostly two -- have a two- to five-month short break. It is important for the streaming services to offer quality content that can make viewers stay with them during this period,” the critic said. “JTBC, for instance, did not want to make viewers wait long for the next episodes of ‘Reborn Rich.’ But it wanted the viewers to immerse themselves in the thrilling story, so it made a decision to air three episodes every week.”
Meanwhile, Kong added that content providers need to define what seasons and parts mean.
Kong explained that SBS’ hit series “Penthouse” (2020) had three different seasons, in which the episodes were released with short intermissions, much like multiple-part projects. She felt that the broadcasters and streamers need to define these terms to prevent viewer confusion.
While some viewers are eager to see the revenge-driven woman Dong-eun (played by Song Hye-kyo) in upcoming episodes of “The Glory" to be released in March, Kim Ye-rim, 29, a fan of the drama series from Seoul, wishes she could go back in time.
“I was surprised when the series ended without Dong-eun’s revenge story. I realized later that a separate series will be released later. I feel a sense of emptiness now and have to come up with a way to wait for the release of part two. I guess the first step is to read the reviews,” Kim, a passionate binge-watcher, joked.
“I am not watching ‘Big Bet’ at the moment, because I want to watch the full series at one go,” Kim said.
A retail company employee, who wished to be identified only by her surname Kim, feels that the old broadcast schedules suited her better.
“I enjoy watching nighttime TV dramas. Following Tuesday-Wednesday dramas, Thursday-Friday series and weekend shows allows no time to get bored,” Kim said. She believes that this sort of schedule keeps viewers excited for the next episode.
Meanwhile, a university student surnamed Lee said that if a series is a must-see, viewers need to watch it as soon as they can.
“If a show looks like it will be a smash hit, you need to watch all of it as soon as possible. Binge-watching or weekly release does not really matter. If you fall behind, the stories may be revealed by local news outlets or the YouTube algorithm,” Lee said.