By Park Ji-won
It is nothing new for Korean dramas and films to enjoy popularity in Asian countries, as Korean media content has been viewed increasingly across the continent over the last few decades. Since the introduction of online streaming services, or over-the-top (OTT) media services such as Netflix, sometimes fans both in and outside of Korea can now receive the latest films and dramas at the same time.
But in the gigantic Chinese market, things are different. Since the Chinese government banned any Korean cultural content from being consumed in China in 2017 ― an apparent act of economic retaliation after Korea's introduction of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system from the United States ― no single Korean drama has been released officially in China. It also became extremely difficult for Korean singers, even stars such as BTS, to perform in China.
However, things have started to change recently. In December China's media regulator approved a Korean video game for sale in China for the first time in nearly four years. It may not be a clear sign of Korean content being allowed re-entry in China, but China's OTT services have actively been investing in Korean content in the past few years even though it cannot be released in the mainland.
|A still of tvN's series "Cliffhanger" Courtesy of tvN|
For example, iQIYI, a Chinese OTT service, has bought the distribution rights of tvN's drama series "Cliffhanger," starring Jun Ji-hyun. It will be aired on tvN later this year in Korea and via iQIYI globally, except for Korea and China. The Chinese OTT service bought more than 30 Korean dramas last year which includes MBC's "The Spies Who Loved Me" and "Backstreet Rookie."
The move is likely part of the Chinese firm's strategic efforts to target audiences in other countries with quality content in the fierce competition with its rivals such as China's WeTv and Youku, as well as international streaming services such as Netflix and Disney Plus, which are also expanding internationally amid rising demand for streaming services amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Experts say that securing quality Korean content for their platform is essential for those wishing to attract Asian audiences and thus to survive the competitive market.
"The Chinese firm's purchase of Korean dramas is part of a content and capital war between U.S. and Chinese companies over Korean content to stay afloat in the streaming service business. In a nutshell, Chinese companies cannot operate without Korean content. Of course, Chinese production companies have been investing huge amounts of money in making content lately and they make a lot of it. But it is not as good as quality Korean content," culture critic Kim Sung-soo said.
"Also, the content from the U.S. is great but not fully acceptable for Asian people culturally. But the Korean content is well-made in filming and acting, on par with the U.S., and it also has Asian philosophy which stresses the importance of family and community, which is very attractive to Asian audiences especially in Southeast Asian countries."
He added that Korean content is relatively cheap for its quality and is competitive in Western countries as well.
"If you think about the Netflix original series Sweet Home, Netflix invested 30 billion won in the series, but they achieved enormous success in the North American and European markets in addition to the Asian market. When Netflix started its business in Korea, the Korean market was simply considered as its test bed for the Asian market. But it turned out that compared to Hollywood, Korea is a cost-efficient drama house which can make compelling content that works internationally."
|A scene in tvN's series "True Beauty" showing a character eating a Chinese instant hot pot. Screen capture from tvN|
Apart from the purchases of Korean shows, many Chinese companies have started direct investments in Korean dramas to promote their products over the last few years.
Last year, Tencent's We TV also invested 100 billion won ($91.1 million) in JTBC Studio, which produced "The World of the Married." The details of the business partnership were not disclosed, but it is largely expected that they will push for releases through their various channels at the same time.
Numerous Chinese companies have bought product placement advertising in the series for their products such as instant hot pots. For example, in tvN's drama "True Beauty," there was a scene in which a character eats a Chinese instant hot pot near a convenience store. A Chinese online shopping website also appeared in the series.
It is not the first time for Chinese companies to employ marketing through product placement. In 2014, a character in SBS' "Three Days" used the Taobao application to make a reservation. Rio cocktail products appeared in the 2016-17 tvN drama "Guardian: The Lonely and Great God." A Chinese SUV appeared in the 2018 KBS drama "Your House Helper."
It is very common for production studios to sign a sponsorship contract and promote products in dramas. However, some still express concerns that Chinese companies, which are under the influence of the Chinese government's censorship, may harm the drama in the name of sponsorship.
"It is inevitable to see embedded marketing in dramas. But it is strange to see Chinese letters and products in Korean dramas because it is not something we normally see in Korea. Once I see something weird on screen, I cannot focus on the storyline anymore. Also, I am worried that China's investment will negatively influence dramas and distort the story in favor of China as they have been claiming that Korean traditional clothes are theirs, for example," said Lee Ye-seul, a 33-year-old drama fan.
"There are possibilities that Korean dramas could be affected by Chinese money, which is under the Chinese government which censors cultural content of the country. The more studios receive investments from China, the more they will need to follow China's direction, which may limit freedom of expression," culture critic Ha Jae-geun said.
However, some stressed that it is not the case in the OTT industry because it is run to a global standard.
"If you are a director hired by a local broadcasting network, then you might need to meet the preferences of local people. But in terms of the OTT service business, it is not possible. OTT service providers are eager to hire more skilled Korean directors and writers and let them do their work and will not risk losing the authors by pressuring them. Some directors, who are not skilled enough, may voluntarily make something favorable to China, but the industry is operated based on capital and ability," culture critic Kim Sung-soo said.