The rise of South Korean movies and television

One of the triangle guys from Squid Game. Nathan Rupert

The “Hallyu” wave is paying Netflix’s bills

“Hallyu” is a Chinese word that refers to the “Korean wave.” Hallyu highlights the rise in Korean entertainment from the 90s to today. Even 10 years ago, Korean entertainment was not easily accessible to the western audience. Fans used services such as Viki and Dramafever to access Korean films, dramas, and more. Today, Netflix is changing the access to South Korean entertainment. As someone who has had a subscription for what feels like ages, their selection of Korean entertainment was slim to none. I found myself having to use other services to watch dramas.

However, as internet culture changes, so does Korean entertainment. Today, we know of Hellbound, Parasite, Kingdom, Squid Game, and more. The streaming platform doesn’t only cater to films and shows: it has been expanding to reality TV and variety shows such as Singles Inferno and more. But the fact is that South Korean content is paying Netflix’s bills. In its first 28 days of being released, Squid Game garnered 1.65 billion hours of viewership according to Netflix’s data. It ranked up 142 million household views, surpassing previous hits such as Bridgerton. According to Netflix, the other biggest Korean shows in 2021 were Vincenzo, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, My Name, Hellbound, Nevertheless, Hospital Playlist season 2, The King’s Affection, and The Uncanny Counter.

In its early days, Netflix changed the game as a DVD mail service that made it easy for customers to order movies online and return them. It was a more convenient service compared to Blockbuster. Only later did it transform into the full-on streaming service we know and love, making movies and TV shows easier for the public to watch. The success of Netflix in America allowed the service to expand into other markets.

According to Troy Stangarone, the senior director and fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI), Netflix launched into the South Korean economy in 2016. Its success in the west made it easier for it to transform media in many countries, but especially South Korea. As a response, some South Korean entertainment agencies declined to license their content to Netflix, CJ E&M being one of the biggest entertainment companies in the country that chose to decline. Other popular entertainment companies such as TVN (Television Network) and JTBC (The Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting Company) accepted the offer, licensing some of their content over to Netflix. Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, a drama created by TVN that was licensed to air on Netflix last year, had a total viewership hour of 271 million by the end of 2021, making it one of the most successful dramas on Netflix.

The reason why Korean entertainment is becoming global is partly due to it being available on Netflix. Other streaming services such as Disney+ have even decided to follow their lead and launch Korean entertainment on their service, with works like the drama Snowdrop. But Netflix not only licenses South Korean content, it also curates original content. This appeals to actors, singers, producers, and directors in South Korea. It is an opportunity to have their ideas turned into reality.

The appeal is that Netflix doesn’t change the content from South Korean artists to attract a western audience. The content is original to the creativity and culture of South Korean artists. Examples of these include the hit variety show Busted, the South Korean drama Love Alarm based on a South Korean manga, and many more. Netflix’s director for original Korean content, Kim Min-young, stated “Netflix is trying to become a channel to introduce Korean content to people around the world.” South Korean storytellers are given the space to tell stories that are significant to and resonant of their cultures, which will then be streamed to a western audience that appreciates authentic story telling. That is ultimately the appeal.

The South Korean Hallyu wave is definitely keeping Netflix’s lights on. As the Hallyu wave reaches every corner of the world, especially the West, some Western entertainment firms have seen the effect and their response has been to adapt South Korean content by making English or westernized versions of popular South Korean dramas: Crash Landing on You, for one. Critics have noted that this is a big mistake as it is changing stories created by South Korean writers.

The lack of originality in Hollywood is quite astounding. Instead of stepping their game up, the response is to essentially copy entertainment from other countries to appeal to a western audience. The reality is that western audiences already enjoy entertainment from South Korea. It appeals to them because it is an opportunity to hear stories from people across the world, to understand and appreciate the nuances of another culture. Squid Game allowed a western audience to understand South Korean culture. Parasite was an opportunity for a western audience to understand the inequalities in the South Korean economy, something that people from different global economies can relate to. Right now, one of the top South Korean dramas on Netflix is Our Beloved Summer, ranking in at number nine. As Netflix focuses more on the world of variety content, Singles Inferno, another reality series from South Korea, made it on the streaming service’s top 10 charts this month becoming one of the most watched TV shows globally.

As media evolves, the world must evolve with it too. This is what Netflix is doing and what makes it dynamic. Stangarone emphasizes that the threat of competition from Netflix that has made the entertainment industry realize they need better funding to further develop content and keep up with the streaming giant. As the Hallyu wave rises, the demand for South Korean entertainment also rises, and it is evident that Netflix is committed to delivering it.


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