K-drama series – Live-shoot system

In the last post, we discussed a well-known (or notorious?) feature of K-dramas – product placement (“PPL”), a form of indirect advertising, which has become so excessive that K-drama fans are being frustrated by it.  In this post, we will talk about another feature of K-dramas, the live-shoot system, which is also a feature receiving a lot of criticisms.

What is the live-shoot system?

Usually, at least two episodes (each of a duration of 60 to 70 minutes) of K-dramas are aired each week.  For the majority of K-dramas, before the premiere, only the first few episodes are being filmed and the filming continues as the drama is being aired.  The “stock” of episodes quickly runs out so in some extreme cases, filming and editing may even take place on the same day the episode is being aired.  For example, actor Kwon Sang-woo complained that he had been shooting the last episode of the drama “King of Ambition” (야왕) up until 30 minutes before it was aired.  So, some people said that the way that K-dramas were filmed was somewhat like a live broadcast TV programme.

What factors have led to the live-shoot system?

Before filming begins, production companies usually need to secure airing time-slots with the TV networks.  Without a confirmed airing time-slot, it may be difficult to secure investment from investors, sponsors and casting (as actors/actresses may not want to accept offers which are not certain).  Moreover, if filming takes place without a confirmed airing time-slot, the production companies may need to take the risk of not being able to recover its production costs if its finished drama product is not able to secure airing time. However, the negotiation with the TV networks and the formation of the production team take time, so sometimes filming may take place in less than a month before the drama is being aired.

The live-shoot system also has benefits to the production companies.  It can help tailor the development of the drama to audience’s response to improve viewership ratings. Korean viewers like to give their feedback on the dramas on the relevant message boards as they understand that their input can influence the development of the dramas.  In light of the feedback received, the writers may re-work the plots/scripts of the dramas to help hook the viewers.  Dramas with high viewership ratings may be given extensions and popular characters can be given more screen time whereas unpopular dramas may receive cuts in episodes and unpopular characters may be written off.  Moreover, the live shoot system allows script changes for insertion of PPL into the drama to increase revenue – there may be new requests for PPL coming in with the increasing popularity of the drama as the drama is being aired.

Cons of the live-shoot system

The live-shoot system has led to harsh working conditions for the production team, including the actors/actresses, due to tight filming schedules, last-minute script changes and scripts being received page-by-page.   For example, the actor, Joo-won, said that in his recent hit drama, “Yong-pal” (용팔이), he might need to continue filming without sleep for six days and get IV shots between scenes to boost his energy.

The live-shoot system can easily lead to accidents as well.  Due to the time pressure, an episode is edited into six to seven 10-minute segments which are sent off to the TV network for airing, which may lead to broadcasting accidents like the screen going black for 10 minutes in episode 19 of the drama, “Man from the Equator” (적도의 남자).  Members of the production team, including the actors/actress, may get hurt more easily, especially for action scenes, due to lack of sleep.

Increasing trend for pre-produced K-dramas

Recently, there is an increasing trend for pre-produced K-dramas, e.g, “Descendants of the Sun” (태양의 후예), “Uncontrollably Fond” (함부로 애틋하게), “Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo” (달의 연인 – 보보경심 려),Saimdang: Light’s Diary” (사임당, 빛의 일기), which are completed before the premiere.  A key reason for this trend is to suit the requirements of the Chinese market, which has recently become one of the key markets for K-dramas.  All K-dramas are required to pass the censorship by the Chinese government before they are being aired in China, and this may take two to three months.  Therefore, the dramas need to be pre-produced to allow simultaneous airing in China and South Korea.

It is expected that with more time to allow for filming and editing, pre-produced K-dramas can be of higher quality.  An added advantage of pre-produced K-dramas is that subtitles and/or dubbing can be prepared beforehand and the K-dramas can be released in different countries nearly at the same time.  For example, “Uncontrollably Fond” can be aired on the TV in South Korea, quickly followed by airing in Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan, and then becomes available in the U.S. through the streaming site “DramaFever”.

However, given the astronomical production costs of K-dramas, unless the K-drama is produced by well-known and well-capitalised production companies with cash-rich investors and top casting, it may still be difficult to secure enough investment to start filming before it is being aired and proves to be a hit.  Therefore, it is expected that the live-shoot system may still remain the model adopted for the K-dramas.


Reminder: The date of publication of the next post will be announced on the “Latest News” page of this website when it’s available. Or you can follow my blog by clicking the “Follow” button on the sidebar to receive email notifications of new posts.  Watch this space!



Lee Hoo-nam, “Dramas get lift from pre-production“, Korea JoongAng Daily, 2016-07-08

Jang Su-jeong, “PPL in Korean TV Dramas, Is It Excessive?“, The KNU Times, 2016-06-18

Korean Dramas: Glamorous on the Outside, Deadly Inside“, The Korea Bizwire, 2015-10-19

鐘樂偉著,《韓瘋:讓世人瘋狂的韓國現象》,香港: 天窗出版社有限公司,2014年版, 45-52頁

Kim Yang-hee, “The unglamorous lives of Korean drama actors“, the hankyoreh, 2013-06-04

康熙奉編,黃約雯譯,《阿拉搜!韓國》,台北市: 商周出版,2013年版, 23-125, 175-177

Korean Culture and Information Service, K-drama: a new TV genre with global appeal, Republic of Korea, 2011


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