Korea in the Grip of U.S. Soap Fever

      May 22, 2007 09:13

      Korean viewers are gripped by U.S. soap fever. Cable and terrestrial channels are broadcasting more than 30 American soap operas. One soju commercial is modeled after U.S. drama "CSI," and Wentworth Miller (35), the star of the drama "Prison Break," recently stopped off in Korea to meet the fans and act as a commercial model for Bean Pole Jeans.

      With the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement concluded, U.S. drama fever is expected to soar even higher. Under the agreement, U.S. investors are able to invest in Korean cable TV channels to the extent of owning a 100 percent stake. The new wave of popularity is quite different from the days when "The Six Million Dollar Man" was a hit.

      ◆ Cable TV Leads

      The generation now aged between 30 and 40 once went crazy for U.S. series. They loved "Wonder Woman," "Roots," "Little House on the Prairie," "V" and "The Incredible Hulk." At the time, people were able to see them only on terrestrial TV. But cable has revived the heyday of U.S. series. Sitcoms such as "Friends" and "Sex and the City," and dramas like "Desperate Housewives," "CSI" and "Lost" all owe their popularity to cable TV.

      The craze has broken all the rules of TV broadcasting in Korea, changing the concept that terrestrial TV leads and cable follows. KBS only belatedly caught on to "Desperate Housewives," and MBC aired "CSI: Miami" after cable TV. On Media and CJ Media, two major multiple program providers in the Korean cable industry, are now competing in broadcasting more than 30 U.S. dramas.

      ◆ Online Buzz

      Internet culture also helps produce fans of U.S. drama, with its multiplicity of themes from crime investigation and medical science to history and homosexuality. U.S. soap fever, in fact, owes much to online buzz from hardcore fans. Some say American soaps have created the largest number of fans in domestic mass culture.

      A U.S. soap-sharing internet club, Nate Drama 24 (http://club.nate.com/24), has 120,000 members, and the whopping 60 Internet fan communities for "Prison Break" have 200,000 members combined. Fans share whole downloadable episodes from P2P sites and watch them all night long. Hardcore fans of American drama build strong bonds of friendship by making subtitles in the Internet communities.

      ◆ A Challenge to Korean Soaps?

      U.S. drama fever is a warning to domestic soap opera producers. In the mid-90s, Korean drama was unbeatable here, and Korean soap operas started leading a Korean pop culture wave in Asia. Now U.S. soaps are changing the traditional themes of Korean drama, essentially good vs. evil and love triangles. "White Tower," a soap made based on a Japanese show of the same name, has drawn praise for focusing on power struggles without concessions to melodrama.

      Prof. Choi Chang-sup, of the Department of Mass Communications at Sogang University, said, "Domestic drama has to improve its content to compete in a more challenging media environment." Under the Korea-U.S. FTA, it is easier for U.S. drama to be aired in Korea, which will boost a trend to consume global products such among people between 20 and 30. For domestic drama to survive, producers need interesting scripts based on in-depth research. "We desperately need a drama-producing environment that does not depend on specific stars," he added.

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