미나리는 어디서든 잘 자라 Minari (water celery) can grow anywhere.
It is a quote from the film Minari, directed by Isaac Chung and nominated for six academy awards. The movie depicts unyielding life of the first generation Korean Americans in pursuit of the American dream. The namesake water celery's tenacious hold on life somewhat resembles the Korean entertainment industry, which is gaining traction all over the world.
As for K-drama, one can take a peek into its popularity through Netflix data, which mentioned a 150% rise in K-drama viewing post-Covid. In 2020, nine Korean shows made it to Netflix's most viewed 100 list: It's Okay to Not be Okay (ranked 19th), Start Up (32nd), Record of Youth (48th), Crashing Landing on You (59th), Hospital Playlist (70th), Was it Love? (72nd), Sweet Home (73rd), Mystic Pop-up Bar (90th), and Stranger (99th).
Netflix viewing performance was more remarkable in certain geographies such as Japan and Southeast Asia, where K-drama viewership quadrupled in 2020 over the prior year; and occupied nearly half of Top 10 shows.
It's Okay to Not be Okay, Netflix's most watched K-drama in 2020
In 2021, rising demand for K-dramas coincides with a rich pipeline of supplies available from screenwriters and cartoonists; as well as escalating competition among domestic and international streaming platforms for market share. The three strong trends will meet to create a perform storm, giving birth to a record number of K-drama production in 2021, an estimate of 137 shows versus a 7-year average production of roughly 100 shows annually.
Streaming platforms have emerged everywhere around the world, and Korean broadcasting industry is no less competitive. The over-the-top (OTT) industry is in its gold rush phrase. There are at least 10 streaming services that are or will be operating in 2021. All of them are not only keen on creating their own original content, but also deep pocketed with lots of capital to employ.
"Over the last two years, we’ve seen the world falling in love with the incredible Korean content," said Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix. “Made in Korea and watched by the world on Netflix."
Luke Kang, head of Disney's APAC, echoed his competitor, promising to bring its own original Korean content to its offering. Apple TV+ has already announced at least two Korean-language projects: Pachinko and Dr. Brain.
Content investments announced by streaming companies
Industry experts argue the OTT industry is an uneven playing field that favors well-funded global incumbents. Some call for policy support to foster domestic contenders.
Nevertheless, some domestic media companies are well positioned. With the best home court advantage is CJ ENM's OTT service TVING. It has forged a formidable triangular alliance among CJ ENM (parent of Studio Dragon), JTBC (differentiated variety shows), and Naver (webtoon IP).
With nearly 20 original shows in its 2021 pipeline, TVING is the most aggressive domestic contender. Its first original content, Girls' High School Mystery Class, launched in January with success. It was followed in March by an original by screenwriter Kim Eun-sook (creator behind Guardian: The Lonely and Great God and Mr. Sunshine). Its original movie Seo Bok starring Gong Yoo and Park Bo Gum is slated to launch this month on April 15. It has exclusively broadcast KCON:TACT3 a K-pop festival of 26 teams. TVING will be spending 400bn KRW in content production in order to acquire 5 million subscribers by 2023, which amounts to the current Korean user base of Netflix.
It remains to be seen whether production of K-dramas will continue climbing higher over the longer-term. But 2021 will certainly be another big year for the Korean entertainment industry.