The Yeouido Observer #001: Save the Last Dance

THE YEOUIDO OBSERVER #001: SAVE THE LAST DANCE

“But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.”

Who knows whether Chuck Prince really believed what he said to the Financial Times that morning of early July 2007, when Citigroup’s head honcho confirmed that the banking giant wouldn’t be pulling out of the leveraged buy-out market anytime soon. With the subprime meltdown looming right around the corner, that kind of resigned optimism could only come from the mouth of someone who was making over ten million a year, and could cash in stock options for close to ten times that amount come hell or high water. That same year, the average ratio of debt to disposable income of American households would reach 127%, in no small part because of the same adjustable-rate mortgages that huge banks like Citigroup were all too happy to encourage — a vicious cycle of living beyond one’s means which led to endless foreclosures. You know how the rest went. The music wasn’t too pleasant.

What the music sounds like these days in Yeouido, the mecca of Korea’s TV broadcasting, is a slightly more complex matter to explain, especially if you refuse to read between the lines. After the credit crisis of the late 2000’s decimated the broadcasters’ bottom line and further complicated an already problematic environment, advertisers have at last regained confidence in the power of television as a vector for publicity, thanks to the policies of the most corporate-friendly government Korea has ever had to endure. What’s more, after years of somewhat underwhelming performances overseas, 2011 turned out to be quite the banner year for what concerns the Hallyu’s drama exports.

In a recent report, KBS Media (the company which handles foreign and ancillary market sales for the public broadcaster) announced that last year they reached the US$ 50 million mark, a first for them. That dramas made up over 97% of the total figure isn’t much of a surprise — just like the continued success of sageuk, idol dramas and the Korean Wave’s great new (or, as some would argue, last) hope, Jang Geun-Seok. You know the trend by now: show does badly at home, sometimes both with public and critics, and yet it somehow manages to avenge itself by year’s end, when Japanese housewives make their voices be heard. Suddenly, the 4.4 billion won 매리는 외박중 (Marry Me, Mary!) made (mostly in Japan) start to make sense, just like the monumental figure Yoon Seok-Ho’s upcoming 사랑비 (Love Rain) scored before even airing a ten second long teaser did. In the usual made-for-stock-exchange-rally announcement, a “mysterious informer” leaked the fact that the melodrama written by Yoon regular Oh Su-Yeon had sold to Japan’s Pony Canyon for a staggering, record-annihilating 450 million won per episode (9 billion won for the whole 20 episodes). Consider that the highest figures to date at the time were the 280 million paid in 2007 for Bae Yong-Joon in 태왕사신기 (The Legend) and 250 million in 2009 for Lee Byung-Heon in 아이리스 (Iris), and you’ll understand the scope of such news. The fact the marketing team later corrected the shot only claiming that they did better than those figures but it wasn’t exactly 450 million matters very little. What stands out is that a show few people in Korea even care about is already paid for in full, before airing its opening credits. Even if it ends up doing 4% and selling 3-4 ads per episode, it will all be profit from now on. Not too bad for an industry which was gasping for air only three years ago.

And the good news continue, because the same KBS Media report notes how not only they expanded on the variety of overseas buyers (from 56 to 61, with Romania, Bulgaria, Argentina, Mexico and Brazil joining the fray), but that they have finally started monetizing their presence in the Chinese speaking market, with US$ 14 million in Internet VOD sales alone. Drama exports in Quarter 1 of 2011 grew 379.3% year-on-year, and 95.9% for the entire 2011 — with SBS Content Hub alone scoring 44 billion won thanks to the monster success of 시크릿 가든 (Secret Garden).

Perhaps even more encouraging are the results by the major cable channels (tvN, OCN, Channel CGV, XTM, Mnet) controlled by CJ Entertainment, through their media branch CJ E&M. Other than announcing they’ll invest 87 billion for 26 drama projects in 2012 alone, and the acquisition of major producers like Kwak Jung-Hwan of 추노 (Slave Hunters) and Kim Won-Seok of 성균관스캔들 (Sungkyungwan Scandal), the icing on the cake was that 80% of the 10 billion won of overseas sales they made in 2011 came from dramas – shows like 로맨스가 필요해 (I Need Romance), 꽃미남 라면가게 (Flower Boy Ramen Shop), 뱀파이어 검사 (Vampire Prosecutor) and 소녀K (Girl K). So what’s the problem, you’ll ask? For that, we need to dig a little deeper. Take Love Rain, for instance.

Yoon Seok-Ho was among the most important players in the advent of trendy dramas in the early 1990’s, his works a sort of mutant child of Wong Kar-Wai and Erich Segal. But by the time the saccharine-filled puppy love melodramas he was starting to be recognized for were igniting the Hallyu in Japan, he was already experiencing a huge downward spiral in his native land: while the first installment of his Four Seasons series, 2000’s 가을동화 (Autumn Fairy Tale), scored an average of almost 30% and closed at 40.5%, 겨울연가 (Winter Sonata) only did 23.1% (with a peak of 28%) in 2002 — embroiled in what’s still remembered as the fiercest ratings war the three stations ever engaged in, its competitors being SBS’ 여인천하 (Ladies of the Palace) and MBC’s 상도 (Sangdo). Despite the presence of stars like Son Ye-Jin, Song Seung-Heon and Han Ji-Hye, his 2003 return with 여름향기 (Summer Scent) was a rating disaster, with an average barely over the 10%, not to mention the final installment of the series 봄의 왈츠 (Spring Waltz), often pushed out of the Daily Top 20 for an abysmal one digit average.

Six years have now passed, and the likelihood of a change of style for Yoon is as remote as the possibility this show has to crack the 15%. Were it not for Japan, Yoon would have already retired, but he’s instead coming back with triumphant figures, putting to shame most of his competition. And it’s pretty easy to see why. In only two years, Jang Geun-Seok has established himself as the biggest Hallyu star by far, and Yoona of SNSD is one of the leading lights of the K-pop bandwagon (the other half of the Hallyu’s huge cash cow, particularly in Japan). Combine that with a story set in the 1970’s, and you’ve got your killer trifecta. The 1970’s element is just as important as the two leading stars, because it’s exactly that old-fashioned “analog” sentiment of Yoon’s shows that first attracted Japanese housewives – simply because it resembled the mood pervading their youth, during the golden age of the Showa Dynasty, from 1954 onwards.

What’s troubling then is the loss of cultural sovereignty the Hallyu’s (read: Japan’s) recent influx of direct investment in the form of pre-sales contracts has resulted in. Without Pony Canyon’s involvement, Love Rain wouldn’t even have been made, and not only does this participation imply conditions to fulfill (generally the fact you have to cast someone of their choice, like a Jang Geun-Seok), it now goes as far as indirectly affecting the direction of the show itself – if a certain subject has no potential appeal in Japan, good luck getting it greenlit. This can cause rather awkward situations when planning a 기획드라마 (project drama, basically the equivalent of a blockbuster in terms of potential accessibility). Take Secret Garden, for instance. The show faced a few headaches at the beginning because Japan didn’t want Hyun Bin, for two very simple reasons: 1) he wasn’t as big a Hallyu star as other names they suggested, and perhaps more importantly, 2) his mandatory military service was looming around the corner, meaning he couldn’t participate in the show’s promotion. It took some string-pulling from writer Kim Eun-Sook to get him the part, but this just shows you what kind of external forces drama producers have to cope with just to get a project done. Secret Garden is also the perfect example of another emerging trend, which is slowly morphing TV drama writers from simple storytellers to a sort of Chief Financial Officer, auctioning pieces of their story to the highest bidder.

Remember characters in a show suspiciously wearing designer brands by Dolce & Clingfilm, or cars which mysteriously looked like Peugeot 306s if not for their finely taped badge? That was a result of the controversial and rather loosely applied law governing product placement on television. But after years of debate, the use of 간접광고 (indirect publicity) was legalized on January 26, 2010. This might not seem like too big of a deal when compared to the use of PPL in other countries (particularly in the US), but the huge repercussions it created in Korea would be akin to laws legalizing marijuana or opening legal brothels all around the country. Broadcasters had been sneaking in PPL for years via the aforementioned tricks, but it was something that could rarely interfere with the show, simply because they couldn’t explicitly advertise a brand or else they’d have to deal with the broadcasting commission. But now that all the chains are broken and broadcasters have gained relatively free reign to sell ad space, the entire paradigm of how a drama’s funding is composed and how that affects its production has completely changed – crossing a river or no return, if you ask me. Let’s first examine how the basic funding structure of a Korean drama has changed over the years.

Before 1991, the year SBS was founded, close to 99% of TV dramas were produced in-house by the broadcasters themselves, with only short dramas like TV 문학관 (TV Literature Series) and MBC’s 베스트셀러극장 (Bestseller Theater) occasionally becoming the exception. This meant that risky projects which cost an insane amount of money and took several years to produce – like the legendary 여명의 눈동자 (Eyes of Dawn), which was made twenty years ago, but still had the budget of a mid-sized sageuk shot in 2011 – would be allotted the necessary funds and human resources well ahead of time. Barring accidents, last-minute contractual disputes or issues behind the scenes, both KBS and MBC would have a complete, year-long lineup of dramas before January even started. This not only helped the shows in terms of logistics and production quality, but also ensured that broadcasters would have the financial and organizational leeway to experiment a little more — since the big hits would generally be successful enough to justify the existence of niche shows that would most certainly end up losing money. But the formula which had been working quite spectacularly for over ten years began to be revolutionized as a result of new government policies.

The official party line was that the new broadcasting law was created to ensure that the stations could achieve financial self-sufficiency without turning into a monopoly, while at the same time fostering diversity and encouraging the formation of independent drama producing companies (the dreaded 외주제작사). What it actually did was mandating a ratio of programs produced by the indies, which was set at 3% for 1991. An insignificant burden, of course. The broadcasters went on with their plans, and experienced what was arguably the most spectacular decade in K-drama history, right as SBS began establishing itself and the first major indies appeared on the scene. The compulsory ratio was raised year by year, reaching 10% in 1993 and 20% in 1998, right as the IMF crisis had begun to slaughter the industry from within and essentially kill off the Golden Age altogether. But even by the time the ratio reached 30% in 2001, it was hardly significant enough to change the dynamics of the industry. At least until a little thing called Korean Wave changed all the cards.

The novelty for the broadcasters when dealing with a drama produced by the indies was that they would pay a fixed amount to the independent company (generally 80 to 100 million won per episode) and then their job would be over – ad revenue would be theirs, while overseas rights, OST sales and the remaining peanuts from PPL and assorted sponsorships (협찬) would be kept by the indies. Most of those revenue-sharing contracts were based on incentives, so that a well performing show would get a budget increase, while under-performing ones would risk an early farewell. The way this system was established deserves a dissertation of its own, because it’s essentially the spark which ignited the rampant tendency of cutting or extending shows based on ratings alone, but let’s not digress. Despite claims that the Hallyu started in 1997 (which are technically correct, but also terribly misleading), before 2003 overseas rights only amounted to a few million dollars a year for the entire industry, so a lot of the indies present on the market were made of drama people who left their “alma mater” to produce with a little more freedom. This meant that since there was never that much money to be made, their bottom line was always that of fostering the industry as a whole, although of course staying afloat was still a top priority. But once 겨울연가 (Winter Sonata)‘s popularity began exploding in Japan followed by the success of 대장금 (Dae Jang Geum) in Hong Kong, the number of companies approaching the TV Drama industry from the outside skyrocketed. It was like putting your finger inside a pool filled with piranhas, as most of the companies joining the fray were led by people who had never even farted in a drama’s direction before. There were only around a dozen more or less established “indies” before the advent of the Hallyu. Over 890 today.

The gradual erosion of the broadcaster as a producer of content meant that their interest slowly moved away from the cultural frame of mind which fosters diversity, and increasingly towards that business-first slant that treats dramas as a golden goose and not much more. This could only lead to a decrease in the average quality of the shows, and a tendency to cater to the lowest-common-denominator. But if the transition between 1991 and 2004 was somewhat manageable, things began to change a year later. Of the 65 dramas broadcast in 2005, 37 were produced by the indies (56.9%). The number grew to 64% in 2006 (out of 75 shows), 71.4% in 2007 (77), 76% in 2008 (75) and something close to 95% today. Even with the broadcasting law forcing stations to devote a large portion of their programming to outsourced programs, nobody would be crazy enough to mandate ratios like 70 or 80%. And yet the broadcasters are all too happy to oblige. Why is that? The answer is, of course, money. Funding, to be precise.

With the explosion of the Hallyu in Japan and Chinese speaking markets, budgets began to skyrocket, to the point that even your average miniseries today is going to cost about 200 to 300 million per episode – sageuk and project dramas catering to the Hallyu market usually go from 300 to as much as 5-600, depending on the scale of the project. All that a broadcaster can make with the weapons given to them by government policies are adverts before and after the show (whereas on cable you can advertise in the middle just like in the west). Yet, the indies can freely attrack both PPL and sponsorships, establishing a funding base that makes big budget dramas possible. So the issue, really, is one of faulty government policies limiting the broadcasters’ power to mobilize funding, inevitably forcing them to opt for indie-produced shows.

In the past and at least until the advertising market crash of 2008, this was rather problematic for a very simple reason: most of the new indies didn’t have the know-how to produce a show, so they would revert back to the broadcasters for everything that didn’t involve paying a dozen people (star writer and sometimes the PD; the cast’s leading quartet and another couple of stars signed to big management agencies) 50 to 70% of the budget. With rapidly declining ratings, a rather tepid situation overseas and only a few precious spots available on network television, it was slim pickings when it came to recouping costs. This meant that most of the indies ended up so deep in the red that their credit rating and stock exchange performance had become abysmal. Pretty notorious was the case of Kim Jonghak Production, which lost over 20 billion won thanks to 태왕사신기 (The Legend), and has been risking collapse ever since. It won’t take a rocket scientist to see that companies which are barely keeping afloat with populist tripe won’t even contemplate risking money on a project that’s too meaty or cerebral to do well in the ratings. In a mere five years since the beginning of the Hallyu plague, diversity had plunged to never-seen-before levels, and average quality… well. Those with eyes to see have been complaining for years, have they not?

But this, too, has changed, in rather sneaky ways at that.

Despite there being hundreds upon hundreds of registered companies, only a dozen odd indies were able to survive the 2008 crisis and are still capable of mobilizing enough capital. The focus has shifted from letting in anyone who knocked at the door with a drama project to a much more selective, streamlined modus operandi – at least on paper, and you’ll have to pardon the pun once you get to the end of this paragraph. You might have asked yourself what all those strange sounding names you see in the ending credits of a show under 제작 (production) might be. They’re not just the good old Olive9, Group Eight, Chorokbaem Media and Pan Entertanment of the world anymore, but a new legalized subterfuge created by both broadcasters and indies to overcome their funding woes. In jargon, they’re called 유한회사 (short for 유한책임회사, Limited Liability Company) or SPC (Special Purpose Company), a limited partnership created for the sole purpose of producing and marketing a certain product. In reality, they’re glorified paper companies. It’s hard to pinpoint when the trend exactly started, but it was popularized in 2009 through a joint partnership between Chorokbaem Media and KBS for a little drama called 추노 (Slave Hunters), which also solved the management problems that had been affectng the making of the show early on. It’s interesting how right before this happened, a company named A-Motion, which according to financial circles might be backed by foreign venture capital, gained control of 31% of company shares and eventually suggested this move.

What was the brilliant trick here? Indie producers deep in debt and with a falling credit rating might have had problems mobilizing capital for a new show, but what if you created a SPC specifically for that project, a limited partnership which would deal with investors directly and without the stigma associated with a money-losing dinosaur like most indies have become today? You’d procure all the PPL and sponsoring you needed, and end up with a cost-effective solution to the funding problem. Of course these SPC companies are just a virtual entity, a paper with two signatures (generally the president of a station’s drama department and the CEO of an independent production company) which creates a money trail of a few billion won – 6.7 for Slave Hunters, with 2 billion coming from each member and the rest from investors. And why would the broadcasters do it? Simple. The law doesn’t actually allow network broadcasters and their affiliates to cash a single won from the aforementioned sponsorships and PPL, but if it’s money made through an expedient like these SPC, then there is nothing terribly wrong with it from a purely legal standpoint. This seems like a small little detail, but it actually makes all the difference, because now broadcasters have opened a door which had been locked for years, one only the indies could barely sneak in, hoping the watchdogs would be too complacent or busy to look. The door leading to that once secret garden known as product placement.

The legal implications of such a move will only be clear once the presidential elections are dealt with. After signing what’s akin to a modern day Eulsa Treaty (the dreaded KORUS FTA), the leading Grand National Party would turn Korean television into the promiscuous twin sister of American TV, if it could get its way. Should Park Geun-Hye win, there’s a stronger possibility that laws favoring a laissez faire approach to investment will be promulgated. This means PPL will become an even bigger factor, along with the advent of their other longtime obsession – commercial breaks during the course of the show, which are now only allowed on cable TV. In theory, PPL done with moderation can be helpful – one of the reasons why it has become such a crucial asset to most mature TV industries. The problem, then, is that moderation in Korea is a concept understood only in moderation.

In The Rise & Fall of the K-Drama Empire, I’ve just now begun to introduce the cultural frame of mind which led to the proliferation of the live shoot syndrome. The idea of constantly having to interact with your audience lest you’ll lose that “event” status has and perhaps will always be there, but PPL the way it’s intended in Korea can only further exacerbate those tendencies. If you start putting all your eggs inside this basket, then you’re never going to get out of the live shoot’s quicksands, simply because product placement in Korea works almost in real time – advertisers tend to jump on the bandwagon all at once, using a devolution of the same word of mouth which drives ratings in a terrifyingly vicious cycle. Vicious because it’s impossibly hard to gain funding through PPL months ahead of your first broadcast unless you let them significantly interfere, and in this case even a Hallyu star won’t make any difference, since what advertisers want is maximum visibility, something that can never be predicted no matter how potentially successful your show is on paper. This means that the entire funding structure of your industry is held together by two forces (Japanese investors and local advertisers) which have no intrinsic interest in your future well-being and the quality of your product, but only in the short-term profits what you produce can generate.

No Japanese company is ever going to blindly invest in a show which doesn’t have at least one star they can market in their native land, and no company at home will fund a project (be it through sponsorships or PPL) without first having seen how it does in the ratings. Put together these two formidable forces, and you’ll experience the almost complete erosion of artistic sovereignty – through what could be defined as self-flagellation, as writers are all too happy to accommodate the advertisers’ increasingly exacting demands. In this environment, how can you possibly plan ahead of time, when one-third to half of your show’s entire budget comes from market entities which may or may not come on board only when the show has already started, and only collaborate with you when you give up significant creative control? If the Korean psyche’s tendency to turn every facet of life into a populist manifesto wasn’t enough to mortally injure your artistic integrity, the market environment does the rest. Secret Garden is once again the perfect example.

This wasn’t just a case of Kim Eun-Sook, Shin Woo-Cheol and their crew getting together and discussing what to do: from the moment the drama was first planned in March 2010, what its makers brought to the table was not a simple synopsis but something closer to an IPO, selling little pieces of their show to the highest bidder, as if they were nothing more than a chief financial officer. Achieve Group DN, a marketing shingle which was also responsible for 공주의 남자 (The Princess’ Man), began handling many ancillary details of most of the characters with PPL and sponsorships in mind. You’ve read that right: some Gangnam drone with an MBA from Harvard who had never seen a TV Drama in his life was handling the building foundations of a drama’s main characters instead of the writer. Everything from Ju-Won’s (Hyun Bin) predilection for certain rather intrusive smartphone apps by LG to his being a CEO of a department store was a conscious effort by the marketing analysts behind this show to tie such elements to a potential source of revenue. Without a worry in the world if that would end up bastardizing it to a disgusting extent.

And why, you’ll ask? The BMW Z4 driven by Ju-Won in the drama wasn’t exactly a top seller before the show aired, with only 17 units sold in December 2009. But right as Secret Garden was broadcasting in December 2010 and despite the 80 million won price tag in the midst of an economic crisis, it still reached 28 units sold for an increase of over 60% — with numbers mounting as the months went on. BMW was only one of the 25 companies which “invested” in the show, for a total of 5 billion out of PPL and sponsorships alone. Good money, you’ll think. But is the quid pro quo really worth it? You get your five billion, but then live in a world where everyone uses the same phone and the same brand of cars; where people who barely make ends meet and are forced to live in an attic wear garments straight out of a trendy fashion magazine. And where a writer has to prostitute herself and let advertisers dictate what one of her characters’ favorite soft drink is. Some dramas even have to devote entire chunks of their storyline to satisfy the demands of an advertiser – see the Okinawian escapades of 여인의 향기 (Scent of a Woman). And the situation is only going to get worse.

Old foxes like Jung Ha-Yeon can use such an “usurpation” and make the best of it – see the whole arc involving Kim Young-Joon (Jo Seong-Ha) and the city of Ulsan vis-a-vis environmental engineering in 욕망의 불꽃 (Flames of Desire). Others are completely overwhelmed by the responsibilities those financial contributions subject the producers to, and just go for maximum effect with the minimum effort, the painful results having become all too obvious – moving the broadcasting commission to formally warn shows like 최고의 사랑 (Best Love) for their excessive and redundant use of product placement. And how about the petulant OSTs which often plague today’s trendy dramas, used with the frugality of a Russian oil magnate and not with the intent of actually supporting the narrative, but making a few tracks popular so that it will make 5 billion won between CD sales and digital downloads? It has all become a monstrous maelstrom fueled by chaos, hypocrisy and superficiality, the desperate will to fund your own drama by any means necessary becoming the very cause of your own downfall. And all because of a little law from twenty years ago, and some overly excited housewives in Japan.

But then again, blaming government policy and the Machiavellian voracity of these johnny-come-lately indies alone would be a little naïve, because broadcasters and management agencies are all trying to profit from this endless, vicious cycle just as badly. The broadcasters, by increasingly distancing themselves from the production of content; the management agencies, by artificially inflating the cachet of the stars they have under contract, contributing to the further degradation of the industry’s financial structure. If the same production environment which created the 1990’s Golden Age existed today and was headlined by the same kind of people, things could still work despite the increased quota of independent productions forced upon the broadcasters, and all the difficulties in securing funding. Even though all the broadcaster gives you is 150 to 180 million won per episode (120 for KBS), a company with an eye to the future would plan a couple of popular hits which would then give them enough financial leeway to experiment and risk a little more – because those same companies would be filled with people born and bred in this industry. But what we’re dealing with today are broadcasters who only seek immediate profit, and independent companies which frantically need to secure their next meal.

When a broadcaster isn’t actively involved in producing content and only buys it from independent production companies, it has no incentive to foster young producers and writers – they just keep buying whatever’s hot and will sell right now, regardless of what might happen in the future. You can judge the results of that mentality on your own by looking at the difference between KBS and MBC. The former has thankfully restarted its short drama circuit, and keeps producing talent year after year (young up-and-coming PDs like Kim Yong-Soo, Hong Seok-Gu and Park Hyeon-Seok being just as talented as the Kwak Jung-Hwan, Ham Young-Hoon and Park Chan-Hong that preceded them). The latter’s last “discovery” was Kim Jin-Min. In 2004. You can try to blame the fall from grace of the once great “Kingdom of Dramas” on all sorts of different factors, but having no long-term vision might actually be the most troubling one.

It’s the broadcasters who essentially force the indies to focus on star power, either of the domestic or Hallyu kind (as depending on the type of contract, overseas sales are now shared between broadcaster and indie producer). Even the best project will never get far unless you attach it to a big name, and of course all the major management agencies know and bank on this, further inflating the already insane star guarantees which are crippling the industry from within. What’s happening in Yeouido somehow mirrors the Hong Kong film industry in its slow and inexorable post-handover collapse: the medium’s popularity is fading, but the stars make increasingly more, hogging enough of the total budget to negatively influence production values. And don’t let drawing power mislead you: this is not like a Tom Cruise making 30 million because his name value permits it. These are artificial plateaus of virtual drawing power created by management agencies for the sake of leverage, they have very little to do with actual figures. Jang Geun-Seok being paid around 100 million won per episode for his upcoming role in Love Rain, as insane as it might sound, makes a lot more sense than the 30 million Han Ye-Seul was given for her role in 스파이명월 (Spy Myungwol).

The former is the result of real drawing power (the contract KBS Media signed with Pony Canyon being the most obvious proof), the latter a figure her management demanded not to make their client appear to be a notch below Han Hyo-Joo and other stars from that same ballpark figure, despite the fact she hasn’t drawn a dime in her entire career. Those 30 million, which were 15 only two years ago and will probably rise to 50 in less than a year, are like the same subprime mortgages which jumpstarted the credit crunch tsunami: the independent producers can’t afford to pay such figures without making huge sacrifices, since the money they get from the broadcasters is always the same. And the sacrifices are usually of two kinds, one being the aforementioned loss of artistic sovereignty by submitting to obscene amounts of PPL and sponsorship, the other by cutting corners.

When one writer and four stars receive 70% of the entire budget, you’re forced to compensate: 20 consecutive hours on a set cost a lot less than three seven hour shooting days; recycling stock music from previous dramas, filling your shows with endless flashbacks (from a scene first aired 15 minutes earlier) and shooting scenes with five cameras lest you’ll have to do retakes can cut costs more than you’d think. This only means you exponentially increase the possibility of your show sucking donkey cojones (because it finished editing five minutes before air time), not to mention endanger the health of your performers. One could be hypocritical enough to say that they’re paid well enough for the trouble, but that only applies to the aforementioned four stars. Korean drama sets are filled to the brim with actors well into their sixties, shooting 15 to 20 hours a day and seven days a week for three to six months, often for as little as a few hundred thousand won per episode. A conscientious industry and a government which cared about its people would put an end to this insanity, but they likely will approach it the same way they dealt with Choi Jin-Shil’s suicide: by ignoring it completely until the shit hits the fan, when they’ll exploit a tragedy to enact laws that will only benefit their bottom line.

We’ve reached a situation where talented writers and producers get ostracized for years not because they don’t appeal to viewers, but because advertisers and foreign investors don’t “care” about them; where diversity has reached such a pathetic, miserable nadir, anything not filled with idols, makjang and the same Cinderella tropes repeated ad libitum is christened “genre drama,” and defined by the most intellectually corrupt arsenal of hypocritical “journalists” as a bold attempt to bring creativity to our television sets; where injuries on the set have become just as common as writers forgetting whatever the hell they’d been writing about for a few months, and where silly primadonnas walk out of productions and create a media frenzy that’s more entertaining than the drama she was starring in.

It’s like a man dancing in a minefield at night, hoping the music will keep playing non-stop. But for how long will it play, and at what cost?

~ Last Update: 2015/04/08