Television ratings are like K-drama award shows: they don’t say everything about the quality of a show, but they do make a big difference to the industry. The whole existence of scripted television relies on producers’ belief that telling stories is a good way to get viewers to watch advertisements. If advertisers don’t get the audience they paid for, someone at the network’s going to go home in tears. By economic standards—rather than story-telling standards—was Pride and Prejudice a success or a failure?
For most of its episodes, MBC’s Pride and Prejudice did beat out Healer (on KBS2) and Punch (on SBS), making it the highest-rated drama in its time slot.
But the numbers reveal that none of the dramas in December and January had high ratings compared to the shows that weren’t dramas. Reality TV, sports, movies, etc., were generally more popular that scripted serials. I think an executive would conclude Pride and Prejudice was a success, because it beat the other dramas, but not a hit. And for better or worse, it was way more popular in Seoul than in the country as a whole. Perhaps people in Seoul are more open to a show that’s basically a dark political parable?
(The charts here show raw ratings—the percentage of the audience with the TV turned on who watched this particular show. In parentheses is where the show placed relative to other shows in its time slot. If there’s no place number, then the show wasn’t in the top 20. Courtesy of Drama-wiki.)
Even though Pride and Prejudice was the best-rated drama in its slot, it started and finished in seventh place in Seoul, meaning that six other shows beat it out. Those are solid, decent numbers, but dramas are complicated and expensive to make. When I see numbers like this I get worried. Is it worth it?
Or will television producers someday swap dramas for more affordable reality shows in order to save money?
Luckily, this nightmare scenario is unlikely. If a drama appeals to the right audience, it brings in viewers who might otherwise have turned the TV off. I know people who only watch reality TV, but I haven’t watched a reality show in years. So networks have to keep the dramas coming to tap into another audience segment.
Networks also spend a lot of time thinking about how to attract the most lucrative audience members, those aged 18–49. The general ratings numbers don’t tell us how many viewers are 18–49. Two shows can have the exact same general ratings, but if one has more 18–49 viewers, it can charge more for advertising.
One last factor of K-drama economics: the possibility of a breakaway hit. When networks sell advertising time, they’re selling a gamble: if this drama becomes the next My Love from Another Star, advertisers will get their products in front of almost a third of the South Korean population.
But predicting the next breakaway hit is impossible. I recently caught up on Healer, which broadcasts on KBS2 opposite MBC’s Pride and Prejudice. If anything has the ingredients for a major hit, I would have thought it’s Healer. It has a near perfect blend of humor, romance, mystery and action—and gut instinct says it would be more appealing than a neo-noir like Pride and Prejudice. But the show has struggled to get into the top 20. Perhaps P&P had an edge because its naturalistic style and Kafkaesque worldview were just plain unusual in a K-drama. Healer is less of a novelty, though it’s outstandingly well-made.
It’s frustrating that a show’s success depends in part on competing dramas. Except for Jan. 6 and 12, Healer trailed Pride and Prejudice. Maybe it’ll pick up steam with the end of P&P. But in an embarrassment of riches, Monday-Tuesday nights are also the night of SBS’s Punch. I haven’t seen it yet, but the smart women at DramaBeans continue to say good things about it. Its ratings hover right behind Healer‘s.
It’s wonderful and maddening to have three good shows competing with each other for viewers. Especially when we consider how weak the competition sometimes is. Remember the sad season that was late September and early October? On Wednesdays and Thursdays, SBS was airing the mediocre snooze My Lovable Girl. KBS2 was showing Blade Man, which was admirably off-the-wall but had ratings in the basement. And MBC aired My Spring Days, which became the highest rated drama in that time slot almost by default.
Some argue that ratings don’t matter at all, since it’s now possible to watch shows later via the internet or recorded TV. And the economics of K-dramas gets another boost from all those foreign licensing agreements. My Lovable Girl sold licensing rights to China for a record-breaking $200,000 (US) per episode, making the show’s dwindling audience numbers in Korea less of a disaster.
But even if ratings are deeply flawed and inaccurate, they’re an easy kind of statistics to collect and give to advertisers. They matter to the businessmen.
So will Healer get the ratings recognition it deserves now that P&P is out of the competition? I hope so. Please, Korean viewers, I can understand why you tuned out My Lovable Girl and Blademan, but Healer? It deserves some love.