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[Feature] The rise and fall of terrestrial TV dramas

Local broadcasters adapt to changed viewing habits, greater competition

Sept. 26, 2023 - 15:02 By Lee Si-jin

For countless South Korean actors, getting a role on a local broadcaster's TV drama series was a ticket to stardom. However, this notion is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, as local TV channels like SBS, MBC and KBS now compete with a slew of streaming platforms and changed viewing habits.

Weekly television program schedules, typically filled with multiple drama series up until a number of years ago, is now filled with reality shows and pilot programs.

Among local braodcasters, SBS has arguably seen the biggest shift in its programming.

In the early 2010s, SBS built up a reputation as a "drama kingdom" with a slew of megahit original series including “That Winter, The Wind Blows,” “Your Voice,” “Master’s Sun,” “The Heirs” and “My Love from the Star” -- many of them recording more than 20 percent average viewership ratings. Rising stars Kim Woo-bin and Kim Ji-won gained massive popularity with “The Heirs" in Korea and beyond.

In addition, the 21-part romantic comedy “My Love from the Star,” starring top actors Gianna Jun and Kim Soo-hyun, saw major international success in China and the US. Remakes of the show also enjoyed huge popularity.

In 2019, the broadcaster released a total of 15 drama series that aired six days a week -- four on Mondays and Tuesdays, five on Wednesdays and Thursdays and six on Fridays and Saturdays. Among them, “Hot Stove League,” “Nokdu Flower” and “The Last Empress” became local hits and brought multiple awards to the starring actors.

However, SBS’ drama schedule changed drastically after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wednesday-Thursday time slot for dramas was removed in 2020, and has not been reinstated since.

Though the broadcaster continued to air Monday-Tuesday series with short breaks, SBS has not aired a drama series in the time slot since “The Secret Romantic Guesthouse,” which came to an end in May.

The broadcaster announced that it would air an episode of its original 12-part suspense thriller series “The Killing Vote” once a week on Thursdays, adding that the decision was made to bring powerful stories and focus on creating high-quality content.

The change was made in response to the fast-changing environment of the content industry. SBS currently airs only three new episodes of two drama series per week -- one for "The Killing Vote" on Thursdays, and two new episodes of another series on Fridays and Saturdays.

Meanwhile, local broadcaster MBC followed a path similar to that taken by SBS.

MBC, which had released five to six Wednesday-Thursday series since the early 2000s, cut down its number of TV dramas to three in 2021.

With “On the Verge of Insanity,” which came to an end in August 2021, the broadcaster stopped servicing Wednesday-Thursday series.

In 2020, MBC removed its Monday-Tuesday drama series time slot for the first time in 40 years, with the conclusion of the 16-part fantasy thriller “Kairos." Currently, only Friday-Saturday dramas remain.

However, the terrestrial broadcaster will air “A Good Day to Be a Dog” starting in October -- the first ever Wednesday drama in its 62-year history.

Poster image of “A Good Day to be a Dog” (MBC)
Still images of tvN's 2023 drama series (tvN)

While cable channels tvN and JTBC have released 17 and nine late-night series this year as of September, respectively, public broadcaster KBS has only aired five projects.

“With many TV dramas’ viewership ratings plummeting to a single digit, broadcasters may experience budgetary pressures against offering as many drama series as they did several years ago,” an industry insider who wished to remain anonymous told The Korea Herald.

Higher budgets, changing viewership patterns

Others in the entertainment business explained that viewership ratings -- one of the crucial factors in raising advertising revenue, is not the only reason for the disappearance of dramas from local television channels.

“The total number of dramas -- including those from both local broadcasters, cable channels and streaming services -- have increased from some 100 series in 2021 to almost 120 projects in 2022. This year, the Korean creative content business released more than 120 series,” the insider said.

“More projects mean a wider range of options for top stars. This raises the amount paid to actors taking lead roles in these series," he added.

In addition, the value of actors who usually play supporting roles has also risen over the past several years -- resulting in record-high budgets for drama projects.

“However, if a megahit series is made, the broadcaster can expand the drama's intellectual property for possible foreign remakes or musical and film adaptations, among others. This is one of the many reasons why broadcasters cannot completely exclude large-budget contents from their TV lineups,” another insider said, sharing the broadcasters’ dilemma.

Culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun said that local broadcasters are struggling because they are having difficulties in analyzing the fast-changing environment of the drama content business.

“Many local TV dramas are planned and produced to a target audience of almost all age groups. However, local consumers' viewing habits have changed greatly,” the critic said.

He said viewers have now moved to platforms which offer content that suit their tastes. A drama series that aims to satisfy viewers of all ages may not be strong enough to survive the fierce competition in the current market.

Jeong added that many local broadcasters have decided to showcase more trot-themed TV shows to hold on to existing, older TV viewers.

Trot is the longest-running pop genre in Korean music history.

“Trot-themed programs can be seen as a survival strategy for TV channels to retain older viewers. Such tactic can be a way to maintain the status quo, but I don’t think it is a future-oriented solution,” Jeong said.