In this post, let’s do a quick review of the history of the K-dramas from its beginning in the 1960’s to the present, and the representative K-dramas in each period.
The South Korean TV networks began airing dramas regularly in the early 1960’s. At that time, television was still a luxury for the majority of households and the content of the dramas was tightly controlled by the military government. Most dramas were made to educate the public and support the military government. For example, the first TV drama series, “Backstreet of Seoul“, aired in 1962, was more like a lecture on the problems of urban life than family entertainment. Another drama, “Real Theatre“, aired for two decades between 1964 to 1985, was in fact a tool of the government’s anti-communism drive.
After the ban on gaining revenue from advertisers was uplifted in 1969, the TV networks started to invest more efforts into producing and promoting the dramas. Moreover, TV dramas began to become a popular form of family entertainment as more households owned TV. The dramas’ storylines were influenced more by the everyday lives of the people than by political agendas. For example, the dramas, “Assi” and “Yeoro“, were about characters enduring difficult lives against the backdrop of the history on Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War. The drama, “Susa Banjang” (Chief Detective), which ran from 1971 to 1989, mirrored the changes in the society during that period – in its early days, the drama was primarily about crimes related to poverty, but during the 1980’s, the drama portrayed serious and violent criminals like drug dealers, robbers, kidnappers, and murderers, reflecting the social problems at that time.
However, with the boom of the K-dramas, the military government began imposing tighter controls over the “poor taste” content and required the TV networks to allocate more broadcasting time to news and educational programmes.
In the 1980’s, the variety of K-dramas increased. Being influenced by the Japanese TV dramas, the Korean TV networks began offering trendy dramas focusing on the lives and love stories of the younger generation to attract young viewers. The drama, “Love and Ambition” (사랑과 야망), aired in 1987, was considered a representative drama of this period.
Historical dramas or “sageuk” (사극) depicting actual historical events or lives of great men like kings, princes, national heroes and generals were also introduced. For example, “500 Years of Joseon Dynasty” (조선왕조 500년) aired between 1983 to 1990, depicted major events happening in the five centuries of the Joseon Dynasty.
The dramas, “Pastoral Diary” and “Hill of Rising Sun” were about the lives of people in small farming villages and these dramas might evoke affection and nostalgia from viewers witnessing the rapid urbanization process of the country.
During the 1990’s, the competition among the TV networks became more intense with the entry of more TV networks and the relaxation of governmental regulations and censorship, leading to more investment of money and efforts into the dramas. For example, “Eyes of Dawn” (여명의 눈동자 ), the first blockbuster series in Korean drama history aired from 1991 to 1992, cost about 200 million won per episode. The drama depicted the Korean history from the colonial period (1910-1945) to the Korean War (1950-1953) and tried innovations such as pre-production and filming in overseas locations.
Trendy dramas also reached a new peak during this period. For example, “Jealousy“, a romantic drama aired in 1994, attracted younger generation with their young characters and stylish and realistic description of the urban life, and the drama’s soundtrack was also a massive hit on the record charts, motivating the TV networks to link the popularity of the dramas with merchandise sales.
The drama, “Sandglass” or “Hourglass” (모래시계), aired in 1995, attracted the viewers by its top star list and its daring depiction of life and oppression under politically hard times, and remains one of the highest-rated dramas in Korean history, averaging 50.8% viewership ratings for its 24 episodes and a viewership rating of 64.3% for its finale. It is notable that this drama used two episodes for its re-creation of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising (in which hundreds of civilians were killed in Gwangju when the military government crushed the democratization protest), which was seen as one of the darkest moments of Korea’s post-war history, and had so far been a taboo for popular culture.
The growth of on-line video services and the social networking on the internet provided the opportunity for K-dramas to reach a much larger audience over the world. More money and efforts were being spent on the production of dramas to attract the audience. For example, more and more contemporary dramas were filmed in different overseas locations such as Paris, Tahiti, Budapest, Shanghai, Greece, etc. with beautiful people and fashionable clothes. Hollywood-style explosions, gun fights and car chases were injected into action-adventure dramas – many K-drama fans should remember dramas like “Iris” (아이리스) and “Athena: Goddess of War” (아테나: 전쟁의 여신).
While contemporary romantic dramas still took the lead with hits like “Winter Sonata” (겨울연가), “Full House” ( 풀하우스), “Secret Garden” (시크릿 가든), “My Love from the Star” (별에서 온 그대) and “Descendants of the Sun“(태양의 후예), other types of dramas have also received increasing attention from the viewers.
Historical dramas enjoyed a revival with the coming of “fusion sageuk” which incorporated a modern touch into historically inspired materials. “Fusion sageuk” were fictional stories about a real historical figure or fictional characters against a real historical backdrop. Instead of historical facts, “fusion sageuk” focuses more on the emotions and struggles of the main characters, making them more like a contemporary romantic drama. The drama, “Damo” (다모) , aired in 2003, was a fictional drama about the tragic love story of a police woman set in the Joseon period with a mixture of young and good-looking characters, melodramatic storylines, elaborate settings, and martial actions. This drama was a big hit among the younger generation, and after the airing of this drama, more “fusion sageuk” were produced with wider themes like romance, action, fantasy, etc. The other “fusion sageuk” with high viewership ratings include “Dae Jang Geum” or “Jewel in the Palace“(대장금) , “Hur Jun” (허준) , “Jumong“(주몽), “Moon Embracing the Sun” (해를 품은 달) and “Chuno“or “The Slave Hunters” (추노) .
On the other hand, with the widespread use of smartphones, web dramas (i.e., mini-dramas consisting of 6 to 10 episodes with each episode being 5 to 20 minutes long distributed through the internet) were on the rise. For detail on web dramas, please refer to my blog post dated 4 February 2015 on web drama.
On the other hand, with the popularity of webtoons (i.e., online comics), an increasing number of TV dramas were adapted from popular webtoons, for example, “Cheese in the Trap” (치즈인더트랩), “Misaeng” (미생), “The Girl Who Sees Smells” (냄새를 보는 소녀) and “Orange Marmalade“(오렌지 마말레이드).
This ends our quick review of the history of K-dramas. While it is difficult to predict the future of K-dramas, there is no doubt that K-dramas will become more internationalized with the benefit of social networking and the help of the internet.
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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頁
Youna Kim (ed.), The Korean Wave: Korean media go global, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013, pp. 7-8
“Korea’s fusion sageuk“, Korea.net, 2012-03-12
Korean Culture and Information Service, K-drama: a new TV genre with global appeal, Republic of Korea, 2011