The Rise Of Cable In K-dramaland: A Couch Kimchi Roundtable

Before long, MBC, SBS, and KBS will be sizing up the competition beyond each other. In recent years, cable channels have emerged as viable alternatives to the three major networks. What’s the formula to their success? Pull up a chair and join us as we talk about why we’re tuning into cable TV!


Page 1

What made cable networks a go-to alternative for viewers?

Page 2

Cable vs. The Big 3

Page 3

Successful Big 3 dramas vs. the failed ones

Successful cable dramas vs. the failed ones

Page 4

The Big 3’s specialty vs. cable TV’s specialty

Public sentiment about the Big 3 & cable TV

Our sentiments about the Big 3 & cable TV

Page 5

Favorite cable dramas

Bad cable dramas

The future of cable: What we’d like to see



Leila: We have to blame tvN. 2012 was an amazing year for them. The Flower Boy” and “Answer Me” series were huge hits!

Goodange: I think you can go even further back than that. The first of the “Flower Boy” series, “Flower Boy Ramyun Shop,” aired on tvN in 2011, and it was pulling in around 2% in viewership ratings, which was considered high by cable standards. Before that, there was also tvN’s “I Need Romance,” and while I don’t know the kind of numbers it garnered, its 2nd and 3rd installments attest to its popularity. “I Need Romance” didn’t do anything revolutionary, but nevertheless, it offered more than what regular K-drama viewers were used to seeing—a lot of steamy skinship and modern South Korean women who were unabashed about their sexuality. “Flower Boy Ramyun Shop” and “I Need Romance” weren’t perfect shows, but their stories were solid and by K-drama standards, they were daring.


Over the years since then, I think cable channels like tvN, OCN, and jTBC have proven that they can produce shows that aren’t just edgy but also have quality storylines. They gamble on dramas that don’t always carry the K-drama staples, and they seem to place more emphasis on narrative development than keeping up with the schedule of a live shoot. tvN, in particular, has accumulated a roster of impressive programs that includes must-watch variety shows like “Grandpas Over Flowers.” They’re making a conscious effort to appeal to a broad spectrum of demographics.

Rinchan: Because cable is more of a private establishment, they are not half as prone to censorship as the public broadcast systems like the Big 3. There is also a different quality to their dramas, which gives us a more interesting format. You don’t really see much risqué dramas, like “Secret Love Affair,” handled well like a cable network could. Cable TV is simply bolder.



Rinchan: The three major networks have been around longer and have a far greater audience base. That is why when we look at ratings, we become happy if a cable drama receives 4% because that’s a big success, but if a Big 3 drama earns the same number, then we know it’s in danger of erratic changes or worse, being cut.

Goodange: Yep, the measurement of performance is interestingly different between the major networks and cable stations. “Misaeng,” which started off with a decent 2%-3% ratings, was averaging 7%-8% towards the end of its run, and that’s on par with the performance of KBS’s “The King’s Face.” With that kind of comparable convergence, I don’t think we have to wait long for cable channels to be measured by the same standards as the Big 3.

Rinchan: The big networks also seem to bank heavily on their dramas’ star power and not necessarily on the story and with good reason. They need to make money off of the drama; however, it is hard to predict how the public will react to it. What the broadcast stations are confident in is how much they can sell a drama based on who is in it. A drama like “My Lovely Girl,” which couldn’t get 10% in ratings in Korea, was purchased by China’s Youku-Tuduo for $200,000 per episode. Therefore, even though there is negative feedback because an idol is on the show or the poor ratings is blamed on the idol’s performance, the broadcast station is fully aware of the revenue these idols can bring in. When we put things into perspective, the international fan base is not something to brush off. Even a drama with Kim Soo Hyun, Lee Min Ho, and Jang Geun Seuk, who is not favored domestically, can pull in international viewers simply because of their name recognition.

Cable networks, in comparison, have signed on a range of actors—from well-known to relatively unknown—that act well to star in their dramas. And what I also noticed is that even if we can’t escape every K-drama trope, cable TV presents the story in such an interesting way that the drama itself stands out as great, like “Misaeng.”


Leila: MBC, SBS, and KBS have the money to pay big stars and go all out with the production scale, and I agree that popular actors draw a global audience. Throw in Rain among the contenders for the lead role in a drama, and it would be enough to convince any of the Big 3 to produce it. Cast him in a drama, and that would also be enough of a reason for some viewers to watch it. The international fan base has that much power.

Cable TV, on the other hand, takes risks to make their story compelling even if that involves hiring a newbie actor. At the same time, tvN and company have also banked on rising or first-time acting idols, some of whom have found their careers boosted with the popularity of their cable shows. Despite the actors being unfamiliar to me, I watched “Answer Me 1997,” and along with many viewers, I witnessed Jung Eun Ji‘s and Seo In Gook‘s acting careers taking off.

I bet cable networks paid less but got more out of the dramas that they produced. The solid storylines, the competent acting, and the quality production value have made many cable dramas memorable.

Goodange: Yes, what I initially noticed about cable was that they gave breaks to unknown or moderately popular artists. Actors who would typically play supporting roles in Big 3 projects are given a chance by cable channels to helm their dramas. So, truly gifted artists, like Han Groo (tvN’s “Marriage, Not Dating“), are rewarded and getting their long overdue exposure, and as a viewer, I appreciate variety. Park Shin Hye, Hyun Bin, and Jeon Ji Hyun could rely on me to check out at least the pilot episode of their [new] dramas, but I also like to “discover” the charm of fresh or less famous talents.

Maybe it’s cheaper to invest in unheard-of celebrities, but not having the prominent stars also shows that the cable stations have enough confidence in their stories—which tend to be cinematic in feel and presentation—to attract an audience. Over time, their confidence has been justified. Look at what tvN has accomplished in its eight years!

Maybe later, the ratings will become more important, but right now, it seems the focus of cable networks is on solidifying their brand. tvN and a few other cable channels give me the impression that they’re much more concerned about producing quality programs rather than seeing high ratings as the main objective. As such, cable shows aren’t always at the mercy of live shoots till the final week of showtime; episodes are filmed much more in advance. Production still has to work with a time frame, but it doesn’t seem like it has to rush and compromise the caliber of the story and cinematography and the safety of the crew and actors to meet the next-day airtime. I’m certainly grateful that production is committed to allotting its time to filming steamy love scenes and kisses. Big 3 romantic moments make me giddy, but cable ones boost the feeling multiple times more.



Rinchan: In comparison to last year’s performance, the Big 3 don’t seem to be performing where they used to, and I don’t think it has much to do with the rise of cable channels itself. In fact, I think it is something that has given cable programs a leg up; as people lose interest in public TV, cable stations are really trying to meet the demand.

When I think of public television dramas that have done fairly well, I think of shows like “Empress Ki” and “You Who Came From The Stars,” which have both performed well domestically and internationally. Yet other dramas which share similar genres as these two could not perform even half as well. One argument that could be posed is the quality of the writing. However, I felt that dramas like “My Spring Day” did not get the ratings it deserved, although it performed really well compared to its competitors. Even if we are to believe viewers had sworn off the Wednesday-Thursday line-up due to its over-saturation of idols, what is the reasoning behind the ratings of “It’s Okay, That’s Love“? Both shows had ratings of 9%-10%, but they both had good quality stories and were enjoyable to watch. Was it too feel-good or sappy for the Korean audience? It is more likely that breaking the 20% mark is more of an exception rather than the rule.

Goodange: LOL. I think we’ll be here forever because there have been so many successful Big 3 dramas as well as flops.

This topic is a bit vague to me because there will always be fluctuations in a networks’ performance due to trends and other factors, and although the Big 3 have been around a long time, it’s not like their production value has remained stagnant even if their dramas have maintained some of the tried-and-true conventions. Certainly, there have been improvements.

And in terms of this discussion, what exactly constitutes as successful? Are we strictly talking about domestic ratings? Or are we also talking about online viewership, international following, and the critical acclaim of a network’s show?

Sure, there was a time when network shows could see 40% of viewership ratings whereas now, the number one show will probably get an average of 15% or even less. Like American networks, I think Korean networks have been affected by the popularity of streaming sites and DVR.


And yes, there are some shows that excel domestically and are sold for gobs of money internationally. On the one hand, there have been a few dramas that have had dismal local ratings but are a sensation in other countries. A case in point would be the K-drama version of “Playful Kiss” that became huge in Japan. Jung So Min and Kim Hyun Joong had done a number of Japanese fan events for the show long after it aired its last episode. Even though “Playful Kiss” did poorly, it didn’t stop it from airing mini-episodes on YouTube, and that venture was even promoted on CNN.

Even with heavy promotion, a network drama, regardless of the quality of the story, simply fails because it hasn’t captured the audience’s interest. The explanation for failure might just be that simple. I don’t think there’s a full-proof formula for getting those successful ratings because the business is full of gambles, and MBC, SBS, and KBS are not just risking their bets on the stories, but also on the actors they choose to headline the projects.

I do think that some Big 3 dramas could probably attribute their hit to novel ideas. “My Lovely Samsoon” featured a relatable heroine; she wasn’t skinny and was average in looks, definitely not what we usually look for in leading ladies, and yet, the audience rooted for her and the show. “Coffee Prince” was another beloved program that had an atypical female lead. While everyone else has been riding on the popularity of vampire fantasies, “You Who Came From The Stars” told the story of an ageless four-hundred-year-old alien falling for a vapid, self-absorbed movie star.

LOL. I don’t mean to devote so much time to this topic since we should be focusing on the rise of cable TV.

Rinchan: Excellent point. For the sake of this discussion, it is important to define success.

Ratings are not something we can go on alone because Korea’s current ratings system does not even consider online viewing, which can cut out a certain drama’s demographic. For example, if a drama is aimed at young adults, chances are they will be streaming it. However, ratings do give us a general pattern of viewing for an audience, as well as a recorded history. We are aware that ratings in different seasons can fluctuate, but we are also aware that ratings between weekday and weekend dramas are different. For a Monday drama to get a 10%, it will be deemed as okay, but if a Saturday drama pulled the same numbers, then we know it is performing poorly, assuming the drama is well into its story. With ratings, there is knowledge of what an average performance is based on past data. When a drama performs far above the average that is one sign of success.

Another thing to take into consideration is the amount of buzz a drama can generate. The Contents Power Index (CPI) takes this into account, as well as the drama’s ratings, which would probably make it a more compelling indicator of success. A noteworthy drama will generate a lot of Internet buzz and will probably be a top search online. This is where cable dramas tend to stand out. In addition to having the handicap of a smaller viewer base, cable channels, too, must compete with live streaming; however, because they are able to create buzz-worthy dramas, we see them as successful. Of course, for the broadcast stations, their bottom line will ultimately decide what is successful; therefore, if the show is lucrative, then they will deem it as successful for themselves.



Rinchan: If we place things in context, there are more public television dramas available for viewing to us international viewers as opposed to cable dramas, and so, the likelihood of finding a poorly made show will be higher in comparison, but not everything cable TV pumps out is good. Among the bad ones are “Surplus Princess,” “Basketball,” and “The Greatest Marriage.” 

“Basketball” was simply dull, granted it was praised for how accurate the story setting appeared. This show is part of a genre I enjoy, but it failed to take off for me.

“Surplus Princess” started off as a quirky, light drama. What disappointed me with it was the fine focus on their countless gimmicks, as well as their very obvious jokes. The attempt to be funny came off as try-hard. Yet what the show lacked most was the development of a story. I felt the drama neglected the growth of its characters and had no general direction. When they cut it down to 10 episodes, I thought they would at least change the setup and move up the more interesting story arcs, but they kept with the same trajectory and glossed over worthwhile scenes. The drama itself wasn’t a total loss because I liked the characters and the lighthearted feel was fine, but in terms of tvN’s standards, I had higher expectations.

As for “The Greatest Marriage,” this is my first time watching a drama where everyone, except for two characters, infuriates me. I can deal with the makjang, but the likability of most of the characters is abysmal.

Still, cable TV tends to get it more often than not, the list of which is too long to mention.


Goodange: Currently, the most popular cable drama is “Misaeng,” and what’s drawing in the audience? Its realistic depiction of office life—or just work life in general. The story’s very humanistic, and so, relatable to viewers. That slice of life aspect is the same charm that tvN hits “Answer Me 1994” and “Answer Me 1997” had. “Plus Nine Boys” had its novel premise as well that involved the belief that the ninth year of each decade in a person’s life is cursed, but again, part of its appeal was its relatable humanism.

Leila: Agree. For me, the success of many cable dramas has come from knowing what the audience wants. Cable channels produce series that are familiar and and full of heart. The real life details in the “Answer Me” series were remarkable, and even if they were less popular or unknown, the actors won over the audience.

It seems like cable dramas are bringing back the old charm of classic K-dramas and imbuing them with a feeling that is very “now.”



Rinchan: We have already mentioned that cable is producing higher quality shows, but they are also dominating certain genres. Dramas like OCN’s “Ten and tvN’s “Gap Dong” are well-known for being great crime thrillers. It is telling when Park Hae Jin mentioned he would not have done “Bad Guys” if it had been on public broadcast. Cable definitely has the Big 3 beat in the thriller category, but KBS’s “Healer” might give it a run for its money.

One thing I do think public broadcast has nailed down is making epic sageuks, such as “The Great Queen Seondeok” and “Jumong.” Among others, these dramas achieved wild success; as a matter of fact, it has been MBC’s marathon of sageuks that once led their reign in the Monday-Tuesday ratings. However, I don’t think a drama like “The Three Musketeers” falls short as a sageuk either because it has both a first-rate production and an excellent story.

Also, in terms of romance, I feel a bit divided because I like what both cable and the Big 3 come out with. Cable TV tends to stray away from the chaebol heir with the candy character setup, which seems like a public TV specialty. I like how cable channels can show dramas with love lines between people who aren’t part of the elite social class. I also enjoy seeing dramas with regular people with common, real life problems, like in “Plus Nine Boys” and “Misaeng.” Yet, I can’t deny that I have enjoyed my fair share of Cinderella-type romances; I have often been entertained by the fantasy twist of shows like “Secret Garden and “Master’s Sun.”


Leila: I think you need the Big 3 for sageuks. Not that cable networks aren’t capable of producing sageuks, just that the scale for the genre is huge, and the Big 3 might be able to flex more financial muscle to fund an epic vision. With cable networks they have simple stories and yet the impact is great, regardless of the genre.

Goodange: As I said, cable amplifies the giddy factor many times more than the Big 3. Big 3 dramas are good at delivering those scenes of our male leads soaking their hot bodies in a stream of water, but cable also has them shirtless while having a steamy bed romp (American soap style) with the female lead! LOL.

I don’t want to be repetitive, but I also think slice of life stories have become a specialty of some cable channels. I think they do it better than the Big 3. Maybe because they don’t have as big a budget as the mainstream networks’, cable stations make up for it with a well-written, well-directed, and well-acted story.


And looking back on the last 2-3 years, it seems cable has had a slight edge [over the Big 3] in the time travel genre. Although SBS’s “Rooftop Prince” seemed widely loved and often stole the number one spot in its time slot, the network’s other time traveling adventure, “Faith,” didn’t receive the ratings it sought, and reviews for it had been mixed. There’s also MBC’s “Dr. Jin,” which was panned for the acting and the writing.

Cable didn’t completely hit it out of the park with the time travel genre though when TV Chosun’s “Operation Proposal,” a remake of a Japanese drama, got far too many mixed reviews—mostly negative. However, tvN expanded its already impressive repertoire with audience-favorites “Queen In Hyun’s Man” and “Nine: Nine Time Travels,” which, last we heard, was being remade for American TV. In dramas, we often hear the expression, “He must have saved a nation in his past life,” and tvN’s people must have done so as I believe the network is proving that it can tackle any genre and excel in it.



Rinchan: Cable TV seems to be gaining the reputation of having higher quality programs, whereas public broadcast TV stations seem to recycle their storylines. There seems to be a love-hate relationship between the public and public broadcast television.

Leila: The Big 3 and cable know their audience. I just think the public now is more demanding and more critical. They want something new all the time, but at the same time, they want the comfort of the familiar. I guess, whichever station can offer a story that meets most of the viewers’ demands, then the public sentiment [towards the channel] will be favorable.

Goodange: The fact that tvN considered having a year-end awards ceremony and people are now petitioning for one (after the idea was dropped) demonstrates how much the public respects and values the station. I don’t think this kind of trust from the public is tvN’s success alone, but is reflective of the strides of cable TV in general.

As for public sentiment towards the Big 3, I’m not sure it has changed much; I think people still see the three as good ol’ reliable. Viewers can still depend on MBC, SBS, and KBS to court their favorite stars to be in a drama even if it holds up the same formulas; so, it’s not like the public will turn its back on those stations. And as I said, those networks have also made improvements, and they may have had some misses, but they still create good dramas. They also have winsome programs for families, like MBC’s “Dad! Where Are We Going?” or KBS’s “The Return of Superman.” So, with their broad target demographics, they will always have an audience.



Rinchan: I can’t begin to care which TV station the drama comes from as long as it is good.

Leila: Honestly, I don’t care much where a drama will be shown as long as it will air! Haha. I just care about watching. I tend to drop a show according to how it has made me feel. If I’m bored, even if its on tvN, then I won’t waste any more of my time.

Goodange: I look to cable for gutsier alternatives—casting selections, stories, cinematography, settings, love scenes, etc. Based on what they’ve come up with over the years, tvN, OCN, and jTBC have developed a very good brand. However, I’m like you guys: I don’t always stay loyal to a drama because of the actor, so I’m not basing my choice on the channel where it’ll be shown either.



Rinchan: jTBC’s Padam Padam stands out in my memory, but “Marriage, Not Dating” is a lot of fun. Han Groo’s Joo Jang Mi has a similar background to the candy girls we mentioned in the previous roundtable, but she’s also very different. She doesn’t take any crap from anybody, not even her mother-in-law-to-be, and is often vocal about her thoughts. The character is very refreshing.

Goodange: Marriage Not Dating” is among my favorites, too. However, I didn’t think this would ever happen, but “Misaeng” has tied with “My Lovely Samsoon” for the top spot on my favorite K-dramas list. I don’t think I’ll ever have it on repeat as much as the Kim Sun Ah hit, but “Misaeng” is so damn good! LOL. I might love tvN forever for giving us this show. It began with Geu Rae (Im Siwan) seeming to be the only underdog of the story, but almost all of the office workers—from the newbies to middle management—were underdogs. I felt bad for their individual struggles, but the collective support between the employees made me root for them even more.

I also feel Lee Sung Min should win every acting award for his performance as Manager Oh Sang Sik. It would be a shame if he’s only offered supporting roles in other shows after “Misaeng.” The drama has really showcased the depth of his talent as an actor; he should be receiving a lot more attention than many of today’s stars.

Leila: I had a blast watching and recapping the “Answer Me” series. Both “Answer Me 1997” and “Answer Me 1994” had me feeling nostalgic for my youth, which made my viewing experience so much more enjoyable.



Rinchan: The one most fresh in my mind is “The Greatest Marriage.” Good shows are built upon supporting characters as well as the story. I am hoping for it to get better since I don’t totally hate it, but it is really hard to watch a drama when you must resist the temptation to fast-forward everyone’s scenes except for the female lead’s.

Leila: How bad is bad? LOL. I have watched few cable dramas, and so far I’ve been satisfied.

Goodange: I haven’t watched a cable show yet that I didn’t like, but I have read a lot of gripes about TV Chosun’s “The Greatest Marriage.” And tvN excessively cutting down “Surplus Princess” from 14 episodes to 10 (and with viewership ratings sliding down) could be attributed to the flaws in the writing.



Rinchan: I want more content. It is disappointing when a drama is only once a week. Kekeke. Yes, I am being spoiled, but when the drama is good, I need a tomorrow to look forward to. More important, I hope cable channels can get more of their dramas out to the international community; they have so many shows that are not subbed.

Leila: True. Cable networks need to branch out and think of what KBS is doing. I mean, KBS has a network that caters to English speaking countries, and the subs are very good. I think we have to support the cable networks more for them to reach this! LOL. Or better yet, all networks should have their dramas subbed as they air.

Goodange: What might certainly be in the near future of cable TV is a year-end awards ceremony. tvN might not have it this year, but I expect it will hold one next year.

I definitely would like to see other cable channels keep up with tvN, OCN, and jTBC so that viewers will have even more choices of high quality programs. I also want the respected cable stations to keep doing what they’re doing and not be beholden to the ratings game because their current practices have continued to build up their brand. However, I do want them to do more in the sense that they’ll take even bolder risks, like doing a drama on same sex relationships, cultural prejudices, etc.

Who knows if cable channels will take up any of the things on our wish list and if they’ll have even more success for trying them out, but it’s fair to say that tvN and company have changed the TV viewing experience for Korean entertainment lovers. They haven’t been around as long as the Big 3, but they’ve already made their influential mark in Korea’s broadcasting history as they constantly produce enduring, quality fan-favorites. Without a question, like their viewers, MBC, SBS, and KBS are also checking out their new competition!

[tv]Go to SoompiTV to check out the shows mentioned in this roundtable![/tv]

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