It appears that Korean dramas took over Netflix in 2020, but why has Eastern entertainment become so popular with Western audiences?
2020 may have been pretty rough for most people, but it was an incredible year for Netflix and streaming services.
According to Statista, Netflix’s profits went from $5.2 billion in Q3 2019 to an astonishing $6.4 billion by Q3 2020.
This has, for a large part, been driven by widespread lockdowns in both North America and Europe; forcing people to stay inside to binge anything and everything that Netflix has to offer.
However, out of all the content that is available to watch on Netflix, no single genre has arguably had a better year than Korean dramas.
Netflix’s Korean movies and series have received incredible support from a global audience this year, with over 40 original K-dramas now available to watch on the platform.
So, with this explosion in both content and demand for Korean entertainment in the West, we ask the question: Why are Korean dramas seemingly taking over Netflix?
The vast majority of Korean dramas on Netflix have incredible production value. This not only makes each series extremely watchable, but it provides a comforting level of expectation from viewers i.e., knowing that a series is well-made makes it more appealing to watch.
From the set and costume design all the way to the filmmaking, it feels like every single Korean series or movie on the platform has benefited from a huge amount of resources, effort and detail that have been put into making them a spectacle to enjoy.
In particular, the hit zombie series ‘Kingdom’ was one that truly hit this nail on the head in terms of the production. High-resolution slow-motion cameras, hundreds of extras in terrifying makeup, historically-accurate costumes and highly detailed sets all gave the appearance of a Hollywood blockbuster movie, rather than a streamed original series.
Going further, the quality of the music and editing is extremely consistent across different series, which is remarkable considering the sheer number of different studios involved in their production.
This notion of high-quality production isn’t specific to only Korean content on Netflix; there are countless titles with incredible visuals and filmmaking. However, the consistency of these standards from series to series and studio to studio is something that makes K-dramas special on Netflix…You know it’s going to be a feast for the eyes.
Casting and acting…
A critical part of any series or movie is the actors and their performances; it can often be the difference between a great show and an average show. However, the casting and the acting in the majority of Korean dramas on Netflix are, for the large part, phenomenal.
From the romantic series that make you fall in love to the horror movies that give you the chills, the acting is almost always on point. These artists truly embrace their characters and it’s become rare to see a less-than-stellar performance from any of them.
It appears almost effortless for most actors to capture the emotions of their characters and their performances are the reason why most stories are so compelling – nothing ever appears forced.
Plus, with so many series on offer, it’s quite outstanding to watch consistently solid performances across such a variety of stories.
Two series that should be highlighted here is ‘Crash Landing on You’ and ‘Itaewon Class’. These two series couldn’t be further apart in terms of their story or theme, and yet both shows have incredible performances worthy of any international acting awards.
It’s also worth noting that the vast majority of K-dramas lack of the level of nudity and crude language that many Western viewers have become accustomed to in recent years.
To quote one readers response to this article: “It’s like watching a harlequin romance novel come to life. You get a glimpse of the culture and life style, their humbleness and kind natures.”
Weekly episodes and new series…
Netflix, along with many other streaming sites, is often known for releasing entire seasons in one go. This is where the attraction of ‘binging shows’ comes from i.e., Netflix releases 8, 10 or 12 episodes of a series at once and you spend the entire weekend starting, enjoying and finishing them.
However, Korean series are one of the only types of content on Netflix that doesn’t, for the most part, release all episodes from a season at once. Netflix has a special partnership with the TV networks in South Korea, where episodes are released weekly on the streaming platform just a few hours after their national premiere.
Whilst binging shows in one or several sittings is fantastic and a great way to immerse yourself in a story, there is something to be said for waiting each week for new episodes of a series.
Whether it be the anticipation and excitement that comes with counting down the hours to the next episode or the idea of ‘shared experience’ with millions of other fans around the world, weekly episodes have become a staple feature for many Korean dramas on Netflix.
Similarly, the consistent stream of new Korean series arriving on Netflix is quite remarkable – as soon as one series ends, another one is starting. For this reason, fans are always providing with a substantial supply of high-quality content, which keeps the momentum going for the genre from one week to the next.
Lockdown and the desire for ‘new’…
Whilst the global lockdowns did force a lot of people inside and into the clutches of streaming platforms, it did also build the desire for ‘new’ types of content that viewers may not have otherwise tried out.
There are only so many series and films on Netflix that you are instinctively drawn to. So, when that supply of your typical type of content has run dry, many people look for something significantly different, rather than more of the same.
This is where Korean dramas benefited greatly from the increased viewership. People who had never watched anything like this genre before are now being exposed to Korean titles on a more regular basis.
This meant that certain series or movies were quick to spread like wildfire throughout friendship groups, families and on social media. In most countries with Netflix, it wouldn’t be rare to see a Korean series or movie in the ‘Top 10’ list.
The rise of K-pop…
The explosion of Asian music in North America and Europe is also a factor in why K-dramas have become so popular on streaming platforms like Netflix.
However, I would argue that Korean music and musicians have been a vector for the success of K-dramas, i.e. an instrument for generating broader awareness, rather than being directly responsible.
In recent years, K-pop bands such as BTS and BLACKPINK have become not only global superstars but modern-day icons for the regions performing arts.
This has, in turn, exposed millions of people around the world to broader Korean entertainment, which includes TV series and movies.
Therefore, enjoying Asian music could make the option of watching Korean dramas on Netflix more appealing i.e., you listen to K-pop and the decision to watch more Korean entertainment in a live-action format becomes that much more attractive.
The influence of anime…
The last point that I would like to make regarding the explosion of Korean content on Netflix may be the one that is the most subjective, the transition of anime fans to fans of live-action content.
There are millions of anime fans around the world and the majority of us are, at a generalisation, teenagers and young adults. However, our community is growing up and finding new types of content, especially via streaming services like Netflix.
Speaking from personal experiences, there are countless friends and fellow fans of anime who have fallen in love with this content over the past several years. The two main reasons for why anime fans are turning into Korean drama fans may be the environment and subtitles.
The majority of anime is set in Asia and this could, similar to the influence of K-pop, make content set in South Korea that much more appealing to watch i.e., you enjoy consuming anime content from Asia and so similar content becomes more appealing.
Then we have the notion of reading subtitles. Whilst dubbed anime are commonplace, most fans will watch series in the original language and with English subtitles. Not everyone in the West wants to watch series that isn’t in English, but if you are used to reading subtitles from anime, then this removes that obstacle from watching a series in Korean.
*This article was originally posted on December 24th, 2020 and was updated on January 8th, 2021 to include user comments and ‘The Rise of K-pop’.
By Tom Llewellyn – [email protected]