A new deal between JTBC and Netflix has been signed which will enable Netflix to simulcast the latest episodes of Man x Man at the same time as it is shown on the Korean network. Hallyu is still developing across the world and this news could mean a big leap forward into countries that struggle to access Korean culture. Netflix themselves have said that the deal “defines how the internet enables Netflix to put the focus on the consumer to bring a show from Korea to over 93 million subscribers across 190 countries in over 20 languages.”
This new deal is a further development in a general trend of Netflix adding Korean and East Asian content to their catalogue. Currently there is a limited selection of televised dramas like Love Rain and D-day which feature popular Korean stars available, alongside a higher number of Naver web dramas. Whilst these should be considered as part of the drama canon, for a lot of hallyu fans this is not the content that they’re most interested in watching. For fans with an interest in dramas from East Asia more generally, Netflix has added several high-profile Taiwanese dramas from the past couple of years, such as Bromance, Refresh Man, and Back to 1989. Man x Man will hopefully begin to redress the balance for more mainstream Korean content in the same way.
Looking at the main English-language licensed streaming providers, you have two options — Dramafever and Viki — both services that present different challenges. Dramafever is only available to US consumers without resorting to certain types of internet wizardry, and while Viki has a global audience, it experiences regular and complicated licensing negotiations which often result in content not being available to all regions. This is problematic for many fans as they cannot legally consume the content they want.
Those who turn to illegal streaming websites might be concerned about the future of one such site, KissAsian. It has been in the news recently because broadcasting agency ABS-CBN have filed a lawsuit against it for copyright infringement. Sites like KissAsian can be extremely dangerous for viewers as they are easy targets for malware but are seen by many as worth the risk if you want to view up-to-date episodes of current dramas and are unable to do so through licensed websites. KissAsian also covers dramas and films from China, Japan, Taiwan, Indonesia and Korea. The sheer variety is very tempting for a fan as there is more available to watch than licensed websites like Dramafever and Viki can legally provide.
The internet is no doubt the main means by which the Korean wave is developing. Television broadcasting simply cannot react to the demand for Korean television as, in most countries outside of Asia, audiences will be smaller and mostly comprised of younger people who also listen to K-pop via the internet. Sites such as Dramafever thus present themselves as specialist sites which dedicate themselves to this type of content only. Therefore, these providers construct an environment which denotes Hallyu consumption as a niche, which discourages further development or investment in global expansion.
Netflix, however, is a global streaming provider who seem to be realising that Korean content is in demand and are willing to make this available to fans worldwide. This equality of viewership across regions coupled with the fact that the episodes will be made available simultaneously with their airing in Korea, is the sort of legalised service that Hallyu fans have been craving. It is a safe assumption that within Netflix’s 93 million subscribers there are some Hallyu fans who could be accessing dramas via KissAsian whilst also having a Netflix account. The hope is that if Netflix can broker more deals like the Man x Man deal, there would no longer be a need to risk the use of KissAsian. It is time for Korean entertainment networks to make it easier for viewers to access content legally.
So where else in the world is improving their licensed Korean programming? Vidio is a new website hosted in Indonesia that shows exclusively Hallyu content including Korean soap dramas, music performances and children’s cartoons. Cameroonian broadcaster LTM announced recently that it will be showing the KBS 2TV show Bridal Mask during their 8-9pm slot for the next two years. The show was originally broadcast in Korea in 2012, but this will be the first export of K-dramas to Africa, with Kenya and South Africa reported as potential targets for further expansion.
This is particularly interesting as although the deal is not for a current show, it’s a big step forward in that this is not internet streaming but televised by a national broadcaster. The fact that it is part of mainstream broadcasting recognises the potential appeal to the Cameroonian market. Data from the Korea Foundation suggests that there were 35 million people across 86 countries who were considered Hallyu fan club members in 2015, up from 21.8 million in 2014. Of these 35 million 74% were located in the Asia-Pacific region, 21% in the US, 4% in Europe and 0.5% in Africa and the Middle East. While this is obviously not an accurate total of all K-drama fans, this suggests that demand is growing globally and it is important for future development that smaller markets worldwide are considered for export deals.
Another way that K-dramas can be experienced globally is through being remade for a regional or even local market and then shown on mainstream television channels. The first stages of an agreement were signed last year between the UK and South Korea to encourage collaboration and exchange of published materials from both sides, beginning with a potential remake of Who are You starring 2PM‘s Taecyeon currently in consideration by ITV Studios. This is no doubt a positive step in that Korean storylines are being considered for UK audiences. For fans already in the UK, seeing a mirage of their favourite narratives produced for general consumption is nowhere near the ultimate goal of seeing the Korean Wave embedded in mainstream entertainment providers worldwide.
K-drama consumer numbers are growing exponentially and hopefully it is only a matter of time before licensing agreements start to sate the appetite for content worldwide. I for one will be looking at the development of Netflix’s Korean catalogue with interest and can only hope that other streaming and television platforms will eventually begin to follow suit.