Highest-Rated Korean dramas in free-to-air TV since 2008 (Updated)

Television ratings gauge the popularity of a drama based on the percentage of TV equipped households that watched its broadcast—the higher the figures, the larger the number of viewers. You’ll find below a list of the 10 highest-rated Korean dramas in free-to-air TV since 2008 based on average nationwide ratings, which we computed using data from Nielsen Korea. You can see a similar list for cable dramas here.

All prime-time dramas from KBS2, MBC, and SBS were included in the ranking, except those that easily obtained unusually high ratings (e.g. weekend dramas of KBS2). The rating data of dramas marked with an asterisk came from TNMS. But the ranking still holds true under the assumption that the difference between Nielsen Korea and TNMS ratings is insignificant.

10. Big Thing* (2010) — 24.4 %

Big Thing Poster 1
  • Network: SBS
  • Schedule: Wednesdays & Thursdays
  • No. of Episodes: 24
  • Genre: Political Drama
  • Director: Oh Jong-rok & Jo Hyun-tak
  • Writer: Yoo Dong-yoon

The only SBS drama on this list, Big Thing is a top-rated show that gained massive popularity thanks to its controversial political themes. It occupied the number one spot on its time slot for 11 (out of 12) consecutive weeks, achieving a peak rating of 27.5 percent. Based on manhwa artist Park In-kwon’s comic titled Daemul, it stars Go Hyun-jung (Return) as an anchorwoman who gets fired from her job and becomes the first woman president of South Korea. The story revolves around the crisis and the challenges facing her administration.

9. East of Eden* (2008-2009) — 24.8 %

East of Eden Poster 1
  • Network: MBC
  • Schedule: Mondays & Tuesdays
  • No. of Episodes: 56
  • Genre: Action & Romance
  • Director: So Won-young
  • Writer: Na Yeon-sook & Lee Hong-ku

The production team of East of Eden had no regret spending a whopping 25 billion won (roughly $23 million) budget as the series turned out to be an epic show that captivated millions of viewers locally and abroad. The drama is headlined by Song Seung-heon (The Great Show) and Yeon Jung-hoon (Possessed), whose characters have a bitter rivalry between each other. The fact that this 56-episode drama managed to sustain a double-digit viewership and achieve a peak rating of 32.3% is amazing.

8. Boys Over Flowers (2009) — 25.7 %

Boys Over Flowers Poster 1
  • Network: KBS2
  • Schedule: Mondays & Tuesdays
  • No. of Episodes: 25
  • Genre: Romance
  • Director: Jeon Ki-sang
  • Writer: Yoon Ji-ryun

Korea’s live-action version of the Japanese manga Hana Yori Dango is the 8th highest-rated Korean drama in free-to-air TV since 2008. Boy Over Flowers, led by Lee Min-ho (Legend of the Blue Sea) and Ku Hye-sun (Blood), attracted high ratings and generated a buzz throughout South Korea and the rest of Asia. It became so popular that broadcast rights for the series were sold to at least 25 countries around the world. The series reached a peak rating of 32.9 percent.

7. Lee San, Wind of the Palace* (2007-2008) — 26.4 %

Lee San Poster 1
  • Network: MBC
  • Schedule: Mondays & Tuesdays
  • No. of Episodes: 77
  • Genre: Historical
  • Director: Lee Byung-hoon & Kim Geun-hong
  • Writer: Kim Yi-young

Directed by the PD of Jewel in the PalaceLee San, Wind of the Palace is a period drama about King Jeongjo—played by Lee Seo-jin (Trap)—the 22nd ruler of the Joseon Dynasty who is considered as one of Korea’s greatest Kings who genuinely cared for his people. The directing of this drama is particularly superb, with its PD winning Best Director at the 2008 Baeksang Arts Awards. This is the longest drama on this list, with 77 episodes that achieved a peak rating of 35.3 percent.

6. Iris (2009) — 28.4 %

Iris Poster 1
  • Network: KBS2
  • Schedule: Wednesdays & Thursdays
  • No. of Episodes: 20
  • Genre: Action, Thriller, & Romance
  • Director: Kim Kyu-tae & Yang Yun-ho
  • Writer: Choi Wan-kyu

This award-winning action drama centers on two men, played by Lee Byung-hun (Mr. Sunshine) and Jung Joon-ho (The Tale of Nokdu), who join a secret South Korean black ops agency and get caught up in an international conspiracy. Iris went on to become one of the most critically and commercially successful series in 2009, hitting a peak rating of 35.5 percent. It is the first South Korean drama that was broadcast on Japanese television during primetime.

5. Descendants of the Sun (2016) — 28.6 %

Descendants of the Sun Poster 1
  • Network: KBS2
  • Schedule: Wednesdays & Thursdays
  • No. of Episodes: 16
  • Genre: Action, Melodrama, & Romance
  • Director: Lee Eung-bok & Baek Sang-hoon
  • Writer: Kim Eun-sook & Kim Won-seok

Ranking 5th on this list of the highest-rated Korean dramas since 2008 is the hit series Descendants of the Sun, which took the world by storm with its elaborate screenplay and a beautiful love story that touched the hearts of many viewers. The success of the series helped revive the Hallyu wave that was in decline over recent years, boosting the Korean economy and spreading Korean culture across the globe. The drama tells the love story of a special forces soldier played by Song Joong-ki (Arthdal Chronicles) and a medical doctor portrayed by Song Hye-kyo (Encounter). It obtained a peak rating of 38.8 percent.

4. The Slave Hunters* (2010) — 31.7 %

The Slave Hunters Poster 1
  • Network: KBS2
  • Schedule: Wednesdays & Thursdays
  • No. of Episodes: 24
  • Genre: Action & Historical
  • Director: Kwak Jung-hwan
  • Writer: Chun Sung-il

The Slave Hunters (aka Chuno) is an epic and Baeksang-winning drama starring Jang Hyuk (Wok of Love) as a determined slave hunter during the Joseon Dynasty. Aside from the gripping screenplay, the performance of the actors made this drama quite a badass one and appealing to the audience. In particular, Jang Hyuk’s performance is something to watch out for as his earnest portrayal of his character earned him a best actor nomination from the 2011 International Emmy Awards. The series recorded a peak rating of 35.9 percent.

3. Moon Embracing the Sun (2012) — 33.0 %

Moon Embracing the Sun Poster 1
  • Network: MBC
  • Schedule: Wednesdays & Thursdays
  • No. of Episodes: 20
  • Genre: Romance & Historical
  • Director: Kim Do-hoon & Lee Seong-jun
  • Writer: Jin Soo-wan

Moon Embracing the Sun shocked South Korea in 2012 when it surpassed the 40 percent-mark in ratings, achieving a remarkable peak record of 42.4 percent. The series, which won Best Actor and Best Drama at the 48th Baeksang Arts Awards, tells the poignant love story of a fictional King, played by Kim Soo-hyun (The Producers), and a female shaman played by Han Ga-in (Mistress). Its screenplay was adapted from a novel of the same title written by Jung Eun-gwol.

2. Queen Seondeok (2009) — 33.6 %

Queen Seondeok Poster 1
  • Network: MBC
  • Schedule: Mondays & Tuesdays
  • No. of Episodes: 62
  • Genre: Historical
  • Director: Kim Geun-hong & Park Hong-kyun
  • Writer: Kim Young-hyun & Park Sang-yeon

The highest-rated sageuk on this list, Queen Seondeok revolves around the life of Queen Seondeok of Silla (one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea) who has to give up her love to save the people. Starring in the series are Lee Yo-won (The Running Mates: Human Rights) and Go Hyun-jung (Return), who bagged the Grand Prize at the 46th Baeksang Arts Awards. The emotionally riveting and heart-wrenching show achieved a peak rating of 43.6 percent, notwithstanding its lengthy broadcast.

1. The Baker King (2010) — 36.4 %

The Baker King Poster 1
  • Network: KBS2
  • Schedule: Wednesdays & Thursdays
  • No. of Episodes: 30
  • Genre: Slice-of-life, Melodrama, & Romance
  • Director: Lee Jung-sub
  • Writer: Kang Eun-kyung

The highest-rated Korean drama since 2008 is The Baker King, about a determined young baker—played by Yoon Shi-yoon (Psychopath Diary)—who overcomes many challenges on his road to becoming the best baker in South Korea. The series catapulted Yoon to immense popularity and earned him a commendation for his sincere acting. The drama’s title became the most searched word on Naver in 2010. Its viewership skyrocketed to 49.3 percent, outshining all the other TV programs and creating a boom in bakery sales at the time of its broadcast.

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InternJang manages a team of writers to publish and promote content for Kdramapal every day. He began watching Korean dramas in 2014 and fell in love deeply with his all-time favorites Signal, Reply 1988, and Misaeng. His affinity for writing led him to start a blog and, later on, spearhead efforts to establish KDP as one of the most dependable sources of K-drama information online.
    • Hello, thanks for commenting! My Lovely Sam-soon is a 2005 drama, so we didn’t include it in the ranking. Finding data for all the dramas broadcast before 2008 is difficult, and considering the ever-increasing competition faced by non-cable dramas over the years, we just decided to start with the year 2008.

    • Hi RTeele, My Husband Got a Family is a Sat-Sun drama, so we exclude it from the ranking. Weekend dramas from the major public broadcasters easily get high ratings in general, so we didn’t include them to eliminate a sort of bias.

      • Yeah I realised that once I wrote the comment but couldn’t delete it.As beezrtp mentioned above, international fans like us usually stream dramas after they finished airing and I watched Shining Inheritance last year only. In one of the other articles involving highest rated cable dramas, weekend ones were also included.Does It mean only free to air weekend dramas tend to get humongous ratings and not the cable ones eventhough they air on the same timeslot during the weekends?

        • Hi Liz, thanks for commenting again! My answer to your question is a yes, considering the current viewership landscape in South Korean TV. The prime-time weekend dramas of free-to-air channel KBS2 do get high ratings (>15%) effortlessly even on their first week of broadcast and they surpassing the 20% mark is the norm. So there’s clearly a big difference from the Mon-Tue and Wed-Thu or even Fri-Sat series. In cable TV, on the other hand, while many of the recent top-rated dramas were broadcast on a weekend schedule, there were a lot of other weekend dramas (e.g. tvN Sat-Sun series) that didn’t do well in ratings. Not all of them are expected to get high ratings just because they’re on that schedule, so there’s no need to exclude cable weekend dramas from the ranking. I think this difference has something to do with the fact that the competition in cable is more difficult than it is in non-cable TV.

          Additional Info:
          At present, these are the 2 prime-time dramas that air on free-to-air TV on weekends:
          (a) MBC Saturday dramas – breaking the 10% mark is easy
          (b) KBS2 Sat-Sun dramas – 20%

          Meanwhile, Mon-Tue and Wed-Thu dramas can celebrate and throw a party when they get a little over 10%. Fri-Sat dramas of SBS (The Fiery Priest, Doctor John, Vagabond) are relatively new, but I’ve noticed it’s easier for them to hit the same mark.

          I’ve been working on ratings-based ranking of dramas that aired since 2008, so I really saw some interesting trends. I want to show you the actual figures (averages etc.) but I can’t since we didn’t store the rating data of non-cable weekend dramas in our spreadsheets. But I hope this response helps!

  • How can you forget “Shining Inheritance” which aired in 2009, having an average of 32 pc and most importantly its last episode rated at 47.1 pc.That was a big miss.

    • Hi Liz, thanks for commenting! As we have mentioned in the intro of this article, we did NOT include weekend dramas that tend to obtain ratings higher than that of their weekday counterparts. Shining Inheritance was broadcast on SBS every Saturday and Sunday. Until now, Sat-Sun dramas CAN EASILY climb past the 20% mark, so it’s kind of unfair to compare them with Mon-Tue or Wed-Thu series that barely surpass 10%. This is not to say SI didn’t deserve high ratings, because I watched that drama and I know how good it was. I think we need a separate ranking for Sat-Sun dramas of the big 3 networks (MBC and KBS2 included); otherwise, they will always dominate the top 10 list.

      • As a U.S. fan, that brings up a question that I’ve had for years – since we usually stream dramas, not necessarily as they air, how can we tell of a drama was/is a weekend drama or not?

        • The best way is to look for the profile of the K-drama online. For old dramas (before the year 2017), Wikipedia and Asianwiki are are reliable sources of info, especially the last one. We also have drama info pages, although our database is not that large (yet). But for upcoming dramas, you can check our site. I think this schedule of ongoing dramas will help you: https://www.kdramapal.com/drama/schedule/. Hope that helps!

    • Hi Isha, right now we don’t have that list published on the site BUT we’ll make it this month for you!

  • I agree with every name in this list. All have been the best of all time actually.. totally something you’ll always remember and can repeat watching ..

    If you have to add new dramas from 2018 until now, is there any any drama that can be added to this GREAT LIST. If so, please share.

  • Boys Over Flowers isn’t the Korean version of Meteor Garden. It’s the Korean version of the Japanese MANGA, Hana Yori Dango, by Kamio Yoko. The manga started nearly 15 years before the Korean adaptation came out, nearly a decade after the Japanese anime aired, and a couple of years after the Japanese live-action series as well.

    It’s only one of the most adapted contemporary Asian stories out there, with live action versions aired in China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan. Rumor has it that Vietnam is considering a version of their own.

    But it all started in JAPAN, and NOT Taiwan. Only idiots don’t know this.

    • @Awua – Upon reading your comment, my first thought was to add to your list that there was a terrible live-action U.S. version of BOF. But then you make the choice to call the host of this blog an idiot. Do you really think there aren’t some shows (or some other facts on other subjects) that she may know more facts about than you? (Does that then mean that you’re an idiot?) Not because she’s a blogger, but because we’re all people with knowledge of many different things from one another.

      Kdrama blogger sites tend to be where people gather to discuss these shows because, in general, they have no one else in their circle of friends and family who understands the interest in foreign shows that require subtitles. Even if we disagree with each other, we are courteous and civilized with each other. If you want to resort to name-calling allow me to suggest you find a dark corner of the web like YouTube where you can engage in conversation with the other dregs of society.

    • Hi Awua, thanks for commenting and pointing our mistake out. It’s not entirely wrong to say that BOF is Korea’s VERSION of Meteor Garden since MG is also based on the Japanese manga. I’m glad we didn’t say BOF is BASED ON Meteor Garden because that is 100% wrong. However, we admit we should have been more careful with our use of words and facts. I edited this article and made an honest mistake.

      Let me share with you that I know for a fact that BOF, MG, and the live-action Japanese version were based on the Japanese manga Hana Yori Dango. That’s because I watched all of them (except season 2 of the Japanese version) when they aired here in the Philippines on ABS-CBN and GMA.

      Thanks again! I already made changes to the article.