It’s a sad fact that K-drama creators depend on unpredictable audience ratings and equally unpredictable production decisions. TvN brought it home for fans of Ex-Girlfriend Club this month when it shortened the romantic comedy due to low ratings.
But even without reminders like this, I never forget that “audience engagement” has a big influence on the stories producers choose to tell. For that reason, here’s a summary of May K-drama ratings, with a few picks for the month at the end. Not that you need anything more to watch, right?
The Saturday/Sunday family dramas chugged along in May with little fluctuation. In Seoul, the rankings remained steady: #1 Bluebird’s House (KBS2), #2 Make a Woman Cry (MBC) and #3 Flower of the Queen (MBC). Bluebird’s House averaged in the 20s, several points shy of the over-30% numbers Legendary Witch got earlier in 2015. The sole weekend history drama, Jingbirok, sat in the top ten list as well, with solid ratings just over 10%.
The weekend “trendy” dramas found a tougher crowd, with KBS2’s Friday/Saturday Producer the ratings stand-out.
A few networks competed for Friday and Saturday nights. Cable network tvN debuted Ex-Girlfriend Club in their Friday/Saturday time slot, but quickly faced competition from Producer on KBS2.
The comic Ex-Girlfriend Club, starring Song Ji-Hyo (Running Man, Emergency Couple) and Byun Yo-Han (Misaeng) scored 1.16% for its first episode May 8, but didn’t rise above 1% in the remainder of May. Cable networks have smaller audiences than the networks, but they consider shows failures when they get less than 1% audience share. The first six episodes averaged .84% and episode 7 fell to .65%. TvN announced after episode 8 that it was shortening the 16-episode series to 12 episodes.
JTBC’s Friday/Saturday Falling for Innocence (aka Fall in Love with Soon-Jung) with Kim So-Yeon (I Need Romance 3, Prosecutor Princess) and Jung Kyung-Ho (Heartless City) had ratings that fluctuated between .93% and 1.65%. Ultimately it averaged above 1%, making it hopefully not a money loser for jTBC, despite the show’s somewhat uneven execution.
In late May, Falling for Innocence concluded and was replaced by My Beloved Eun-Dong, with Joo Jin-Mo (Empress Ki, the king in Frozen Flower) and Kim Sa-Rang (second lead in Secret Garden). Its unintentionally creepy first episode on May 29 got 1% ratings. Episode two fell to .75%, an ominous sign for the lost-love melodrama.
But the biggest pay-off for Fridays and Saturdays was on KBS2, where Producer’s first episode May 15 went above 10%. As of the end of May, Producer was averaging ratings of 11%.
These healthy numbers are almost low considering the powerhouse cast includes Kim Soo-Hyun (My Love from Another Star), Gong Hyo-Jin (That’s Okay, It’s Love), IU (You’re the Best, Lee Soon-Shin) and Cha Tae-Hyun (recently of variety show 2 Days & 1 Night, and the star of 2001 mega-hit My Sassy Girl). The mockumentary style of early episodes may have caught audiences by surprise, or perhaps the 80-minute length of episodes is too much even for Kim Soo-Hyun fans.
Nevertheless, Producer’s last episode in May hit 14.5% in Seoul, placing it at #3 for the day and marking it as a success, if not a runaway success.
May introduced one last weekend contender, KBS2’s Orange Marmalade. The teen vampire drama, based on a webtoon by the same inscrutable title, airs one episode per week on Friday night. It’s ratings have averaged 3.87% audience share, low for KBS2. The first four episodes were an engaging melodrama, and the fifth episode made an abrupt shift back to the Joseon era to become a fusion sageuk. It’s an enjoyable show thanks to its talented cast (incuding Yeo Jin-Goo, aka the child actor who has played the younger self of every single good-looking Korean actor ever), but it’s unclear where it’s going with the sudden genre change.
Mondays & Tuesdays
Weekday dramas have to work hard to compete with variety shows and other options, and May didn’t see any breakouts. Hwajung (MBC) and Heard it Through the Grapevine (SBS) remained the most-watched dramas on Mondays and Tuesdays.
The well-made and entertaining costume drama Hwajung (aka Splendid Politics, starring Cha Seung-Won and Lee Yeon-Hee) averaged #7 for the day in Seoul according to the Nielsen numbers, #10 according to the TNmS statistics. The audience share sat at just above 10%.
Heard it Through the Grapevine, newly awarded a 2015 best drama Baeksang, received a May audience share similar to Hwajung’s. The two shows swapped back and forth the number 1 and number 2 drama spot throughout the month.
On KBS2, Who Are You: School 2015 has averaged between 6% and 7%. And on tvN, slice-of-life rom com Let’s Eat 2 has been enjoying ratings above 2%, excellent for a cable drama.
Wednesdays & Thursdays
In the first week of May, top Wednesday/Thursday dramas Unkind Women (KBS) and Angry Mom (MBC) concluded still, sitting in the top ten for Wed/Thurs shows.
Their departure helped Girl Who Sees Smells (SBS) on its continued, uneven rise towards the top ten. Despite starting well outside the daily top twenty back in March, by the time Girl Who Sees Smells concluded on May 21, it had risen to be #3 show for the day in Seoul, with audience share of 14% in the TNmS numbers. That should be a relief for its stars, Park Yoo-Chun and Shin Se-Kyung.
The new shows that debuted in mid and late May include Warm and Cozy (MBC), Masked Prosecutor (KBS2) and Mask (SBS). Warm and Cozy, from power screenwriting duo the Hong sisters, is struggling to stay in the top 20 for the day, possibly because its very relaxed pace won’t appeal to many. Meanwhile, Masked Prosecutor hasn’t fared much better, despite starring Kim Sun-Ah and Joo Sang-Wook. It has now fallen out of the top 20, weighted down by confusing writing and direction.
May 27 introduced newest contender Mask, an SBS melodrama from the pen of Choi Ho-Chul, writer of memorable 2013 angst-fest Secret (aka Secret Love, KBS2). On its debut episode, it immediately pulled ahead of Warm and Cozy and Masked Prosecutor. Now in early June, it’s in Seoul’s top ten by some measures.
Secret was the top drama in its time slot in 2013, beating out the star-studded Heirs, and this time around Choi Ho-Chul’s gonzo Gothic style has even less competition for the time slot. With reliable, established leads Soo Ae (Queen of Ambition) and Joo Ji-Hoon (Princess Hours aka Goong), it may remain the Wednesday/Thursday champion for some time.
Mask is directed by Boo Sung-Chul, one of the directors of Secret competitor Heirs. Though Heirs was a tonal mish-mash, the individuals involved were talented. I look forward to seeing what this director can do with a very different kind of script.
On the Internet
Viewers inside and outside Korea continue to have different tastes, but this month didn’t produce radical differences of opinion.
Sensory Couple (aka Girl Who Sees Smells) and School 2015 were the top dramas on DramaFever for most of May, although School 2015 earned relatively low ratings at home in Korea. These two shows were also the most popular shows on Singapore-based streaming site Viki, at least as measured by number of “likes.”
A few currently airing shows also placed in DramaFever’s top 10 for most of the month: Falling for Innocence (aka Fall in Love with Soon-Jung), Producer, Hwajung and My Unfortunate Boyfriend. On Viki, we find a collection of cable dramas at the #3 to #5 spots: Falling for Innocence, The Lover and Ex-Girlfriend Club.
Despite its critical and commercial success in Korea, Heard it Through the Grapevine has had a relatively small audience abroad. By contrast, Koreans and overseas viewers seem to agree on romantic comedy Warm and Cozy. Despite coming from the Hong sisters, it has unimpressive numbers.
Finally, brand-new SBS melodrama Mask surprisingly already has as many “likes” on Viki as Sensory Couple (aka Girl Who Sees Smells) earned in its entire run. I suspect this is partly due to Secret’s fanbase, who have looked forward to something new from Choi Ho-Chul. But episode one’s gripping opening scene was also a killer, well-calculated to draw us in.
The melodrama Mask has already proven in its second week to have an addictive combination of dangerously crazy characters and extreme situations. It reminded me of Secret before I even realized it was the same writer. For connoisseurs of melodrama.
Producer has turned into a good slice-of-life show, which stands out from May’s raft of slice-of-life dramas thanks to its setting in the variety television industry. For feel-good romantic comedy.
Hwajung remains an excellent costume drama as it moves into its “second act,” so I’m continuing to watch the 50-episode behemoth. Apparently so are Korean audiences. For political intrigue, hidden identities and an endearing central trio of characters—and of course, big hats.
Heard it Through the Grapevine won a Baeksang for best drama two weeks ago. By all accounts it’s a refreshing melodrama well worth watching. For thoughtful, character-driven drama about family dynamics.
And lastly, tvN’s Ex-Girlfriend Club had the light tone, adult concerns and relative lack of makjang that typify tvN shows. Despite the cable network’s decision to truncate it, the show distinguishes itself with a different approach to old-friends-turned-lovers. For those who enjoy over-the-top comedy and understated emotions.
Note: These are “picks” insofar as they may interest the broadest range of international viewers. I’m watching a bunch of other fun things, too. Don’t get mad at me if I left out oppa. As usual, I haven’t been able to find numbers on everything. Omitted from the May report: cable shows The Lover and My Unfortunate Boyfriend.