These days, K-Dramas are becoming just as popular with international viewers on Netflix as they are in Korea. However, what goes down well in one country doesn’t necessarily go down well with another. Industry insiders told The Korea Times what overseas networks and buyers like Netflix look for when selecting K-Dramas for their audiences, and their preferences are almost the opposite of what Korean viewers like.
Mental-health focused romance drama It’s Okay to Not Be Okay was overwhelmingly popular with international viewers on Netflix. In many countries, it was even the most watched show at the time. So, naturally, many fans were shocked to learn that the show’s ratings are surprisingly low in Korea.
But while the difference in opinions may be surprising to viewers, a production official from an unnamed K-Drama company revealed that it’s not shocking at all to them. In fact, the official revealed that overseas buyers like Netflix looks for very specific qualities in the K-Dramas they purchase, which are very different to what Koreans want.
For example, when making content to sell to Netflix, production companies typically focus on romantic comedy-dramas. When they try offering other genres, such as medical dramas, overseas buyers are uninterested.
90 percent of overseas buyers turn [medical dramas] down irrespective of their quality. Maybe this is because Korean rom-coms such as Descendants of the Sun have been making waves around the world.
— Production company official
Korean viewers, on the other hand, are getting sick of romantic dramas. According to product companies, viewers in Korea are asking for less focus on romance and more genre diversification.
Likewise, Netflix is happy to buy fantasy K-Dramas. The King: Eternal Monarch, a romantic fantasy drama, was much less popular than expected in Korea. On Netflix, however, it was a top 10 hit in numerous countries.
Korean pop culture critic Kim Hern Sik said this stems from the value Korean viewers place on realism. Many Koreans found The King to be completely unrealistic, but “international viewers seemingly did not mind that”.
The production company official went on to say that other qualities Netflix and overseas buyers look for are “good-looking male leads” and “big-name Hallyu stars”.
One Korean woman in her 20s told The Korea Times she rarely watches Korean TV shows because of “their cookie-cutter stories and excessive product placement”.
Cookie-cutter stories don’t seem to be a factor for Netflix and other overseas buyers, however. This is likely because global viewers are mostly new to K-Dramas and haven’t been saturated with the typical storylines.
As for product placement, selling to Netflix and other overseas networks has become a way for production companies to avoid in-show advertising. With the pandemic leaving Korea with a faltering economy, it’s been difficult for companies to find brand partners. Selling to Netflix, on the other hand, provides an influx of cash without the need to resort to advertisements.
As such, these days, it doesn’t matter so much when a drama receives low viewership. In previous times, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay’s poor viewer numbers in Korea may have been a death sentence for the drama. But now, Korean exports can still become hits as long as they’re popular overseas.