Korean dramas, often abbreviated as K-dramas or Kdramas, are South Korean television series that are broadcast twice a week. At present, most of these dramas—called miniseries —air on two consecutive days for 16 to 20 1-hour episodes or 32 to 40 30-minute episodes, with the actual running time ranging from 55 to 70 minutes for hour-long episodes and from 25 to 35 minutes for half-hour episodes. Meanwhile, there are other Korean dramas that are as short as 2 episodes and as long as over 100.
The above definition of Korean dramas is actually outdated and only applicable during the time when only TV channels are the ones that broadcast them. These days, the number of web Korean dramas (i.e. those that are broadcast exclusively online) is on the rise, and so does the number of original Korean series produced by major online streaming service Netflix. Thus, this should be the accurate and inclusive definition: Korean dramas are entertainment content series in Korean language headlined by Korean actors and made primarily in South Korea.
Kdramas can be classified into the following categories according to their broadcast length.
- Miniseries. These type of Korean dramas run for 12 to 20 hour-long episodes or 24 to 40 half-hour episodes between 9 and 12 pm Korean Standard Time (KST), with the weekday prime time dramas broadcasting from 10 to 11 pm. They are the most popular worldwide as the most popular actors in the industry are courted to star in them. Chances are that your favorite Korean drama falls under this category. A few of the recent well-known mini-series in the last three years include Mr. Sunshine, Return, Sky Castle, 100 Days My Prince, Encounter, Memories of the Alhambra, Defendant, Strong Woman Do Bong Soon, Descendants of the Sun, and Goblin. The following are the major broadcast schedules for miniseries and the corresponding TV networks with shows airing on such schedules. These time slots have relatively been fixed for years.
- Monday and Tuesdays (KBS2, MBC, SBS, JTBC, tvN)
- Wednesdays and Thursdays (KBS2, MBC, SBS, OCN, tvN)
- Friday and Saturdays (SBS, JTBC)
- Saturdays and Sundays (OCN, tvN)
- Serial Kdramas. Serial Korean dramas are long-running series that are broadcast for over 10 weeks or 2 months. They are mostly weekend terrestrial TV dramas and daily dramas that run for 50 hour-long episodes and over 100 35-minute long episodes, respectively. Although serial Kdramas air daily from Mondays to Fridays or during the weekend, some of them are broadcast on the time slots occupied by the miniseries such as Jumong, East of Eden, Lee San, Queen Seondok, and Six Flying Dragons.
- Short Kdramas. Dramas under this category are less than 12 1-hour episodes in length. In the past, most of them serve as fillers in between mini-series. At present, however, both free-to-air and cable networks seem to diversify their drama formats in response to changing markets.
One thing that differentiates Korean dramas from TV series in other countries, the USA in particular, is their typical one-season format. Rarely do Korean dramas get a second season no matter how successful they are, and in some cases where the TV network gives a go signal for a sequel, the follow-up features a different cast and a new story. For example, School 2017, the seventh installment of KBS’s School franchise that started way back in 1999, has a completely different cast and story than its predecessors but it did not veer off the past seasons’ focus on portraying real issues facing the South Korean youth. On one hand, there are very rare instances when Korean dramas do get a sequel with the same cast and a story that continues on where it left off. The latest examples are JTBC’s Age of Youth 2 and Welcome To Waiki 2, OCN’s Voice 3, and MBC’s Investigation Couple 2.
Three major terrestrial (free-to-air) television networks air Korean dramas on a regular basis since the 1960s. These are the Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), and Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS). KBS, which is mainly divided into two terrestrial networks, KBS1 and KBS2, is the national broadcasting company owned and funded by the government of South Korea that can trace its beginnings back in the 1920s. KBS1 primarily broadcasts news and current affairs while KBS2 focuses on general entertainment programs. The latter channel is popularly known for its 2002 drama Winter Sonata, considered as the show that had started the spread of Korean Wave or hallyu across Asia and eventually, throughout the world. In 2016, KBS2 made another phenomenal success with the achievement of Descendants of the Sun, the drama that took the world by storm and achieved almost 40% in nationwide TV ratings.
Meanwhile, MBC and SBS are commercial broadcasters that started operations in 1961 and 1991, respectively. MBC is best known for its hit 2003 Kdrama Dae Jang Geum or Jewel in the Palace which achieved over 40% in nationwide viewer ratings and became a worldwide success, propelling the popularity of Korean dramas overseas. One of the recent internationally popular dramas of the network is Moon Embracing The Sun which aired in 2012. It enjoyed viewership ratings that also stood at 40% and won the prestigious Best Drama prize at the Baeksang Arts Awards.
SBS, the youngest among the three major broadcasters, has had its own share of high-rated dramas that made a cultural impact around the world. One of them is the award-winning Lovers in Paris (2004), a romance drama that helped catapult writer Kim Eun-sook into its status as one of the top screenwriters today. The network’s most recent global success is My Love From The Star which created a hallyu sensation in Korea, China, and the rest of Asia, influencing sales and trends in Korean fashion products such as clothes, accessories, and make-up.
Majority of the Korean dramas broadcast on prime time slots until 2012 come from KBS2, MBC, and SBS. But since then, these networks are no longer the main source of mainstream series as cable channels started to broadcast more and more Korean dramas. There are three major cable channels known at present for their record-breaking and unique dramas that cater to different groups of viewers. These are the Total Variety Network (tvN), Orion Cinema Network (OCN), and JTBC.
tvN, launched in 2006, is the leading among the three and is the one that boasts the most number of cable Korean dramas. The year 2010 has seen a jump in the quality and number of cable dramas, a development that signaled a shift in a market dominated by the three major broadcasting networks until recently. Many of these dramas had their homes on tvN, which at this time continued to experiment with various drama programming formats suitable for its target audience. Although the network started airing Korean dramas as early as 2006, it was not until 2012 when it made a remarkable success in TV ratings. It hit the headlines that year when Reply 1997 achieved over 7% in ratings and recorded the highest rating ever for a Korean cable drama at the time. The network had seen more quality series in the following years. 2016, which coincides with the network’s 10th-year anniversary, marks a notable time in the its history as three of its dramas recorded achievements that have never been seen before in the Korean entertainment industry. Signal, a fantasy thriller, won Best Drama at Baeksang Arts Awards 2016, beating contenders from the major broadcasting networks and becoming the first ever cable drama to win the prestigious prize in the ceremony’s 52-year history. The network went on to receive the same award in the following year for another 2016 drama, Dear My Friends. Lastly, the fantasy romance Goblin, which premiered in December 2016 and ended in January 2017, became the highest-rated Korean cable drama in terms of average nationwide ratings until 2019. The drama spawned its own fashion crazes and became a cultural phenomenon in South Korea.
JTBC and OCN are relatively new players in the field when it comes to Korean dramas. JTBC was launched in 2011 and began its venture into broadcasting Kdramas in 2012. The network hit the headlines in 2013 when its family drama Childless Comfort surpassed the ratings of tvN’s Reply 1997 by a large margin. The 40-episode serial drama consistently obtained over 10% in viewer ratings and held the highest rating for any JTBC drama for four years. Woman of Dignity broke this record when it reached over 12% in viewership rating. It marked 2017, along with Age of Youth 2, Man to Man, and Strong Woman Do Bong Soon, a successful year for JTBC. But 2019 is far more successful for the network, with Sky Castle becoming the highest-rated Korean drama in cable TV history as far as peak ratings are concerned.
Meanwhile, OCN is essentially a movie channel owned by the same media conglomerate that established tvN. It broadcast Korean dramas as early as 2006 but it was not until recently when it stood out in producing dramas that became a hit among the viewers and pulled in ratings higher than 5%. The record-breaking dramas, Voice and Tunnel, somehow influenced the network’s decision to greenlight a complete weekend Korean drama programming in 2017. Unlike tvN and JTBC, OCN had no fixed time slot for dramas but this has changed since that year. In 2018, the network actively started to utilize the Monday-Tuesday and Wednesday-Thursday time slots following the broadcast of My Secret Romance in April 2017 and The Guest in September 2018, respectively. Most of these dramas are targeting a specific group of viewers who watch crime or mystery thrillers.
The following donut chart shows how many 2018 Korean dramas belong to a certain genre group. Contrary to a common belief that Korean dramas are all about love stories, the romantic group represents only a third of the total count. There are many choices for viewers who prefer something else to romance. In terms of TV ratings, the highest-rated genre group in 2018 is the melodrama and satire (see more details here).
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW AS A FAN