What’s a K-Drama?

K-Drama: net-speak for a South Korean television show that 1) uses a script, and 2) airs as a regular series.

K-drama is a term that got going among fans on the internet, so its meaning isn’t completely obvious.

To my surprise when I first started watching them, a K-drama doesn’t have to be a drama the way high school English teachers taught me to use the word. A K-drama can be a romance, action-thriller, mystery or comedy. In fact, lots of K-dramas are comedies.

How can a drama be a comedy? This makes sense once you realize the word K-drama isn’t derived from the English word drama, but from the Korean word 드라마 or deurama, which refers to any scripted television show.

Of course, K-dramas can, and often do, fall into the genre of drama or melodrama. Look at K-drama websites to find out what genre a really show belongs to. Viki and Drama Fever tell you what genre to expect, as do Asian Wiki and Drama Wiki, the IMDB equivalents for Korean shows.drama fever what is a kdrama genre mystery 4web

So a K-drama is a Korean television show?

Yes, of the scripted, fictional kind. Korea also produces a number of reality and discussion shows, typically called variety shows. Among the most popular of these are 2 Days 1 Night and Running Man, which has transformed much of its cast into unlikely Hallyu celebrities.

K-dramas differ from scripted American shows in one major way: K-dramas do not run indefinitely. They do not have “seasons.” This makes them resemble the old American mini-series in many ways.

The most popular K-dramas among international audiences have 16 to 20 episodes, each about an hour long. (Depending on the time-slot and channel, some are 47 minutes and others are 65 minutes.) Producers and writers agree on a number of episodes before filming starts.

The weekly shows about contemporary characters (known in the business as “trendies”) usually 16 to 20 episodes, though some stretch longer. “Boys over Flowers” ran to 25 episodes, for instance. Historical costume dramas (sageuks, in Korean) often run to as many as 50 episodes, as do the multi-generational family melodramas that air on weekends.

So a K-drama is a mini-series?

Americans born in the seventies or before will remember influential mini-series like Roots, Shogun and North and South. US mini-series in the seventies and eighties were “special television events” with massive advertising campaigns and high viewer ratings. Comparing today’s K-dramas to our old mini-series gives another perspective on Korean television.

K-dramas resemble our old mini-series in a few ways:

1) K-dramas are lengthy but arrive at a firm ending. In the final episode there are no major loose ends requiring a sequel.

2) Stories can be more complex and feature more characters than a 120-minute movie. K-dramas usually interweave the stories of several characters. The big budget K-dramas feature large casts and use big historical events as a backdrop.

3) The relatively short length allows the country’s best actors, directors and writers to participate. The names involved are crucial in gathering an audience—fans will tune into a K-drama specifically to see a favored celebrity. Star-power mattered in old American series as well. “Starring Richard Chamberlain” used to have a magic ring to it. You’ll have to believe me on this one.City-Hunter horizontal poster mediumweb

4) They have relatively high production values. K-Dramas may budget for on-location shooting overseas (Thailand for City Hunter, Japan for It’s Okay, That’s Love, South Africa for Swallow the Sun), highly choreographed action set pieces (City Hunter, IRIS, Yong Pal), cutting-edge special effects (My Love from Another Star), etc.

Old American mini-series similarly had film-quality production values. (Shogun was actually edited and released as a two-hour movie in Europe.) Recent Korean shows are high quality, big budget and big impact—one reason that international broadcasters are quick to grab these shows for distribution around the world.

5) They air in prime-time. Publicity campaigns suggest they’re “television events” that you should watch in real-time. In this age of time-delayed viewing, it’s increasingly hard to convince viewers they have to watch on schedule. But K-dramas still strive to create buzz that will make them appointment television. Shows like 2014 hit My Love from Another Star succeed. (MLFAS was so popular in China it kicked off a fried chicken craze that made international news.)

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There are some differences too:

1) K-dramas are longer than any American mini-series ever. Even the shortest Korean series is 50% longer than an old American mini-series.

2) Korean series do not air on back-to-back nights for one week the way American mini-series once did. Two episodes air per week, and this continues for 8 to 10 weeks. Waiting for next week’s episode is part of the fun—or excruciatingly painful, if the last episode ended with a cliffhanger.

3) Because shows air over the course of two or three months, production companies do not finish filming before airing the first episode. In fact, Korean producers prefer a process called “live shooting.” In this approach, episodes are filmed and edited the same week that they air.

This allows producers to respond to viewer ratings and comments each week. For example, a well-liked character may gain more scenes in the script (an example is a totally random scene about character Woo-Bin in the middle of episode 18 of Boys over Flowers). Or if the second leads are more popular than the first leads, they may end up getting more and more screen time over the course of the series, as appeared to happen with 2015’s High Society.

The exhausting “live shoot” process means that when an actor is injured, the show must go on. A scriptwriter may have to write a broken arm into an episode, as happened when Gong Hyo-Jin was in a car accident while filming It’s Okay, That’s Love. Even weirder, the scriptwriter may have to rewrite an episode so that the main character has as few lines as possible. This happened when Koo Hye-Sun was in a car accident during shooting Boys Over Flowers. She required three stitches in her mouth and the result was her total silence throughout episode 18—yes, the same episode with the shoe-horned extra scene.

For a great analysis of the hazards of live shooting, I highly recommend Why Do Dramas Do That?, the informative e-book by JavaBeans and GirlFriday at DramaBeans.coffee prince window poster horizontal medweb

4) The “live shoot” also allows flexibility around the length of a series. Though producers plan on a certain number of episodes, networks will sometimes extend popular shows by an episode or two. Coffee Prince thus has 17 episodes instead of the originally scheduled 16, as does Master’s Sun.

It’s also possible for a show to lose episodes. Me Too Flower had a major production setback when lead actor Kim Jae-Won was injured on the very first day of shooting. Subbing in a new lead at the last minute (the adorable Yoon Shi-Yoon) allowed them to cobble together a show, but it never recovered its buzz and was trimmed to 15 episodes.

K-dramas with 16 to 20 episodes are sometimes referred to as “mini series” in the Korean media, to distinguish them from daily shows or costume dramas that may run for as many as six months. But they aren’t exactly mini-series the way Americans use the word.

The Bottom Line for K-Drama Producers

The popularity of K-dramas with young American viewers has puzzled some media analysts, like the slightly facetious writers at the Wall Street Journal. But many viewers find the short, contained Korean style of story-telling is a refreshing addition to a diet of long, open-ended American series. ♥

Click here for more discussion of K-drama’s appeal and how to watch and learn more about K-dramas.