We have a wave of new shows starting over the next few weeks: Warm and Cozy (formerly known as Jeju Island Gatsby), Producer, Masked Prosecutor and True Romance (formerly Chaebol’s Daughter).
That makes now a good moment to pause and look at last month’s K-drama scene. One thing was clear in April: as we saw with Healer back in January, foreigners have very different tastes than Korean viewers.
Mondays & Tuesdays
Blood vs. Heard it Through the Grapevine vs. Hwajung
One piece of evidence that subtitle watchers are on another wavelength comes from the KBS drama Blood. Throughout April, it remained the lowest rated Monday/Tuesday drama with Korean ratings around 5%. Reviews and recaps suggest these low numbers are well-deserved.
(To be fair, although Koala’s Playground described it as “the narrative crap equivalent of Hyde, Jekyll, Me but without good acting from at least one of the leads,” others liked its imaginative transformation of vampires into virus patients. Leila at Couch Kimchi dedicated a review this week to highlighting the parts of the show that worked.)
But overseas, Blood was DramaFever’s most-watched show in April. Taking into account the population of Korea and the size of DramaFever’s audience, it’s possible more non-Koreans than Koreans have watched the vampire romance.
Blood has had high ratings on DramaFever since it premiered, helped out by the fact that the streaming site has an exclusive license to show it on the web. But exclusive rights alone can’t explain why it remained popular throughout March and April.
Korean viewers have theorized that Blood is more popular with foreigners because of the bad acting. One native speaker said of subtitle watchers, “I don’t think they know that the acting’s bad. Since they don’t know Korean, they probably can’t get a feel for it.” Is this true? I admit I do notice bad acting faster when it’s in my native language. Do we cut K-dramas slack because of subtitles?
After Blood wrapped up on Apr. 21, Who are You—School 2015 took over its time slot, but it hasn’t broken into the daily top 20.
The Monday/Tuesday winner throughout April was the well-done teen pregnancy melodrama Heard it Through the Grapevine. It also did well on the “Content Power Index” issued by marketing firm CJ E&M. This index aims to account for social media buzz.
The premiere of costume drama Hwajung threatened Grapevine’s lead mid-month, beating it by a small margin, but Grapevine fought back. By the end of April, Hwajung had averaged second place for the month, but was barely trailing.
As of today (May 12), Grapevine and Hwajung are essentially tied for first place. Hwajung was 0.1% ahead of Grapevine on May 4—how’s that for close? It looks like the ratings battle will continue, to the excitement of the media, who like to cover drama ratings like they’re soccer scores.
Despite the ratings battle, both shows have unremarkable ratings for Korean television overall. They’re sitting at around 5th place for the day among viewers in Seoul. And they aren’t on the radar of many overseas viewers. Only once in April did Grapevine made it onto DramaFever’s top 10.
TvN is the only cable channel competing on Mondays and Tuesdays. The gourmet rom com Let’s Eat 2 is getting good-for-cable ratings between 1 and 2%.
Wednesdays & Thursdays
Angry Mom vs. Unkind Women vs. Girl Who Sees Smells
The winner for Wednesday/Thursday has been KBS, with the multi-generational Unkind Women maintaining ratings in the low teens. Like Heard it Through the Grapevine, this audience puts it solidly in the middle of the daily top 20 list.
Angry Mom on MBC is in number 2, with 8 to 10%. And Girl Who Sees Smells (aka Sensory Couple) on SBS is another one of those romantic comedies that’s possibly more popular overseas than in Korea.
When Girl premiered in early April, it wasn’t even in the daily top 20 (though it immediately did better than its predecessor Hyde, Jekyll, Me). Its ratings have steadily improved, however. It now sits around 10th to 13th place with audiences in Seoul.
Meanwhile, Sensory Couple is the second most popular drama on DramaFever for April—more evidence of taste differences inside and outside Korea.
DramaFever doesn’t have an exclusive licensing arrangement with SBS for the show. Since it’s streaming legally at Viki and Soompi as well, we can presume it has a good-sized overseas audience. It’s also one of the dramas with the most social media buzz, according to CJ E&M’s “Content Power Index.”
A Girl Who Sees Smells, starring Shin Se-Kyung and Yoo-Chun, is a nimbly executed romantic comedy. Its relative success overseas may partly reflect foreign viewers’ love for rom-coms.
But these ratings may also be a reminder that Korean audiences were in a somber mood in April because of the first anniversary of the Sewol ferry disaster. As I remember from living in New York in the early 2000s, sad anniversaries do have an impact on audiences and what they want to watch.
Bluebird’s House in First, SBS Still Struggling
As usual, weekends are when Koreans tune in to dramas, and when foreign viewers tune out.
Also as usual, the Saturday/Sunday audiences are at KBS and MBC.
On KBS, the first drama of the evening, Bluebird’s House, is the most popular show in Korea on Saturdays and Sundays, with ratings between 20 and 30 percent. And almost half this audience sticks around afterwards for the history drama Jingbirok, giving it percentages in the low teens.
By all accounts, Bluebird’s House taps into some of the same economic and generational anxieties as cable drama Misaeng did during the winter. Starring Lee Joon-Hyuk, the show gives attention not only to the characters’ family lives, but also their work lives. Did Misaeng’s success remind producers that the office is full of drama too?
Just behind Bluebird’s House, with ratings in the high teens, is MBC’s Make a Woman Cry, which replaced Rosy Lovers mid-April. The melodrama following it on MBC at 21:55 pm, Flower of the Queen, is doing well, too. Its ratings are consistently in the teens. In April it was usually the third place weekend drama.
And what about SBS drama Divorce Lawyer in Love? This romantic comedy replaced My Heart, Twinkle Twinkle much earlier than expected, when My Heart cancelled 25 of its projected 50 episodes due to low ratings. Ratings remain low for SBS weekends, however. Divorce Lawyer in Love averages a weak 4 to 5 percent.
Weekends are busy on cable.
JTBC’s Friday/Saturday drama Falling for Innocence (aka Fall in Love with Soon Jung) has respectable 1 to 2% ratings. This heart transplant romantic comedy lost my interest after a few episodes. It does, however, stars the charismatic and lovely Kim Seo-Yoon (Prosecutor Princess, I Need Romance 3). It consistently appears on DramaFever’s top 10 list, so it’s doing well overseas.
And late Saturday night, OCN’s thriller Missing Noir M is getting good 1 to 2 percent ratings. And making me wonder if anyone in Korea ever sleeps. (The show starts at 23:00 pm).
Ratings numbers for other cable dramas have been hard to come by in English-language media this month. I don’t have numbers for The Lover, the closing episodes of Superdaddy Yeol (tvN) or the opening episodes of My Unfortunate Boyfriend (MBC Drama).
The latter stars No Min-Woo (The Greatest Wedding, Full House Take 2, My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox) and Yang Jin-Sung (Bride of the Century, City Hunter). So far, the broad comedy is tapping into both stars’ gift for goofiness. If you agree with me that No Min-Woo was more entertaining as the vain idol in Full House T2 than as the stoic gumiho-hunter in My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox—or if you love the total silliness of shows like Modern Farmer—you might enjoy My Unfortunate Boyfriend.
I sampled a number of shows in April, most of them pretty forgettable. So far, Girl Who Sees Smells and Hwajung have been excellent in their respective genres. I’ve also laughed a lot at the goofball comedies The Lover and My Unfortunate Boyfriend.
I’m keeping my schedule clear for the dramas premiering later this month. With the new shows coming up, we may soon be complaining of a surfeit of riches. Fingers crossed. ♥