Korean soap operas were the pinnacle of the Korean Wave that swept Asia. According to the Korean Broadcasting Institute (KBI), soap operas are still the most popular exported Korean TV program, accounting for 90 percent of TV programs exported in the first half of this year or US$53 million.
However, Korean TV is losing its competitive edge in Japanese and Chinese markets in terms of price and quality. Analysts say that producers' obsession with casting only top stars played against maintaining the quality of Korean soap operas. As a matter of fact, during the heyday of the Korean Wave, investment in lighting, props, stage art and supporting actors and actresses fell.
Just six years ago in 2002, top stars were paid only W5 million (US$1=W1,301) per episode. According to a recent record, Song Seung-hun was paid W70 million per episode, Lee Jung-jae W50 million, and Choi Ji-woo W48 million -- showing that their values rose more than 10 times from about five years ago. The Corea Drama Production Association on Dec.11 pledged to suspend actor Park Shin-yang indefinitely for demanding W170.5 million per episode for four extra episodes made for "War of Money."
Bae Yong-joon in "Winter Sonata" (left) and Lee Young-ae in "Jewel in the Palace"
Kim Jin-woong, a professor at Sunmoon University said, "When there were only two soap operas -- 'Winter Sonata' and 'Jewel in the Palace' -- that were hits overseas, people mistakenly thought any drama would bring international success, and speculatively raised the price of top actors and actresses. This significantly raised the cost of production, and most producers repeatedly found themselves in the red."
This led to a decline in the quality of soap operas in general. Foreign buyers have long complained that Korean soap operas lack storytelling power.
There is some self-reflection within the entertainment business that the Korean Wave failed to introduce an advanced and competitive production system.
Lee Moon-haeng, a communications professor at the University of Suwon, said, "While the Korean Wave is not as strongly felt in Japan and China, it still has a very loyal fan base in Vietnam among the young generation. If we come up with a localized Korean Wave strategy, we still have limitless opportunities."