Hi there, did you know that exactly 27* prime time Kdramas have been completely aired in Korea from January to July 2017? 15 of these dramas came from the three biggest networks, namely KBS, MBC, and SBS, while the remaining 12 had their homes on tvN, JTBC, and OCN. In this post are lists of the top dramas based on their average nationwide ratings from Nielsen Korea, one of the two companies in South Korea that quantitatively measure the audience of television shows. That being said, the “top Korean dramas” you will see below are recognized as such according to viewership ratings only. In addition, since the ratings represent the number of Korean households that watch a certain show, the rankings below do not necessarily represent the dramas that are popular worldwide.
Top Korean Dramas in the First Half of 2017 (Free-to-Air Category)
7. Saimdang, Light’s Diary (SBS) — 10.2 %
An average rating of over 10 % is no small feat but if we look at how Saimdang managed to get this number, the drama is considered a flop. Being a completely pre-produced drama starring Lee Young-ae of the mega hit 2003 series Jewel in the Palace, it premiered in January with 16.3 % in viewer ratings, a record that is unbeaten until now. But its premiere turned out to be the first and last episode to wow the folks at SBS as the ratings dropped steadily since then, reaching an all-time low of 6.1 %. The drama even got shortened by two episodes.
Synopsis: The drama is a reimagining of the life of Shin Saimdang, a renowned Joseon artist who excelled in painting, poetry, and calligraphy. A Korean art history lecturer discovers her ancient diary and unravels her extraordinary life.
Why watch Saimdang, Light’s Diary? You are a die-hard fan of Lee Young-ae whom you’ve been waiting for to appear on the small screen again after 14 years. Or you are a sucker for fantasy sageuk and dramas based on real-life figures.
6. Fight For My Way (KBS) — 10.9 %
I can’t seem to finish the last two episodes of this show but overall Fight For My Way is good. The drama started humbly at 5.4 % ratings and achieved nearly twice this value the next week. People really watched it, especially those who could relate to the story of two ordinary individuals aiming for their dreams. This drama marks Kim Ji-won’s first as the leading actress after playing second lead roles in The Heirs and Descendants of the Sun.
Synopsis: Two ordinary people are going through major setbacks in achieving their dream career paths because of the highly competitive working environment. They’ve been close friends since their early childhood years and as they accompany each other’s journey towards achieving their goals, they fall in love with each other.
Why watch Fight For My Way? You can’t get pass your Descendants of the Sun or Hwarang addiction and you’re always looking for something that is DOTS-related or Hwarang-related. This is the answer if you just want to see again someone from either of those dramas.
5. Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People (MBC) — 11.7 %
Rebel is the first drama in which Yoon Kyun-sang (Doctors) and Chae Soo-bin (Moonlight Drawn by Clouds) are playing the lead roles. Many viewers appear to have stick to this drama til episode 30 (yes, it is 30 hours worth of binge-watching!) based on its relatively stable ratings, so if you are interested you might as well check this. Personally, I can’t compel myself to watch a drama this long but I’ve already seen a much longer one—the 50-episode Six Flying Dragons.
Synopsis: Rebel: Thief Who Stole the People tells the story of Hong Gil-dong, a son of a servant who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. He’s become the Robin Hood and first revolutionary activist in Joseon.
Why watch Rebel: Thief Who Stole The People? You’ve been waiting for Yoon Kyun-sang to get his first ever leading role in a drama. And here it is, 30 episodes long for you to indulge in.
4. Ruler: Master of the Mask (MBC) — 12. 4 %
This one ended recently and is the third historical drama on this list. Ruler is the first MBC drama to air two 30-minute long episodes during its schedule, so it’s 40 episodes in total instead of the usual 20. In case you don’t know yet, this new format in broadcasting dramas started on May 10 this year with Ruler and SBS’s Suspicious Partner being the first dramas to have been affected. The new format was implemented to get around Korean laws which prohibit the insertion of any advertisement during an entire episode.
Synopsis: The drama tells the story of Joseon Crown Prince Lee Sun who fights against an organization called Pyunsoo-hwe that has gained power and wealth through the privatization and monopolization of the water supply all over Joseon. He hides behind a mask and brings hope for the people who suffer from all the injustices.
Why watch Ruler: Master of the Mask? You’ve long wanted to see Yoo Seung-ho wearing the crown prince’s robe or Kim So-hyun is your bias.
3. Whisper (SBS) — 15.6 %
Whisper. The first episode gives you a quickie intro to the detective heroine and the court judge male lead. I watched it but didn’t continue. Many others did, which is why the drama dominated the competition and eventually achieved a peak of 20.3 %. This is one of the only two dramas to date which surpassed the highly coveted 20%-mark, so there must be something in it that kept the viewers interested until the finale.
Synopsis: Two people meet as enemies but fall in love with each other as they work together to take down a corrupt system in a big law firm. Lee Dong-joon is a Seoul District Court judge who unfairly makes a guilty ruling on the father of police detective Shin Young-joo. When Shin Young-joo finds out that Judge Lee Dong-joon is in charge of his father’s trial, she looks for evidence related to her father’s case and confronts him to make her revenge.
Why watch Whisper? You go crazy over legal dramas or you’re a Lee Bo-young fan like me.
2. Chief Kim (KBS) — 15.9 %
Chief Kim did not surpass the 20 % rating mark but it managed to obtain an average which is a little higher than what Whisper got. I did not expect this drama to be a hit among viewers yet it solidified the success of Namgoong Min as an actor who’s quite capable in playing various roles from a psychopath (in Remember) to a kind-hearted company department chief.
Synopsis: Chief Kim centers around an accountant who used to manage financial matters for gangs but quits his previous job and begins working as a middle manager in a company on the verge of bankruptcy. He struggles to save the company and fight for its employees.
Why watch Chief Kim?: You adore light shows with a fight-for-what-is-right element in its plot. Plus, you’re curious to see Namgoong Min playing a no-jerk role.
1. Defendant (SBS) — 21.7 %
With a massive rating like this, I won’t be surprised if 2017 ends with Defendant being the highest-rated drama. This is another legal thriller starring Ji Sung whom I last saw as an Entertainment agency CEO in Entertainer. The Korean audience intently followed its story from start to finish, given how the ratings surpassed 20 % four weeks into its run. Wow, it achieved a peak rating of 28.3 %, so I might check this asap if life doesn’t get in the way. You too.
Synopsis: A righteous prosecutor at the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office gets accused of killing his wife and daughter. He is wrongfully charged with murder and faces a death sentence, but finds it difficult to assert his innocence as he suffers from temporary amnesia that took four months of his memory.
Why watch Defendant? The whopping ratings!
Top Korean Dramas in the First Half of 2017 (Cable Category)
5. Man to Man (JTBC) — 3.174 %
Man to Man is a good example of a much-hyped show that fails to meet everyone’s expectation. Still, it managed to pull off decent ratings for JTBC. Playing the lead role in this drama is Park Hae-jin who headlined last year’s Cheese In The Trap. This drama is the first ever series to be aired simultaneously on a Korean cable channel and the streaming giant Netflix.
Synopsis: A longtime top Hallyu star needs a bodyguard and hires a mysterious black ops agent for the job. Together, they encounter twisty, inevitable circumstances that involve his fan club president-turned-manager. Unknown to the actor, however, the elite agent is on a secret mission while serving him as a bodyguard.
Why watch Man to Man? It’s available on Netflix and you want to try watching a Kdrama the Netflix way this time.
4. Voice (OCN) — 4.357 %
OCN, just like JTBC, is reaching new heights this year with its dramas that succeeded in pulling off never-seen before ratings. Voice is one such drama, which started just fine at 2.346 % but more than doubled this record in the following week. It’s a crime thriller drama which contains several violent scenes that it got reviewed for censorship. Still, many viewers watched it until the end.
Synopsis: Voice tells the story of two police officers who work at the 112 emergency call center and have lost their loved ones at the hands of a serial killer. They meet and team up to solve the murder case and catch the killer who murdered his wife and her father.
Why watch Voice? You enjoy solving crime cases and are brave enough to witness gory scenes.
3. Secret Forest (tvN) — 4.562 %
tvN is suffering from a slump in ratings since February 2017 and Secret Forest finally came to the rescue. The drama is the first tvN series to air every Saturdays and Sundays. It’s being talked about in many online forums and sites due to its compelling story and a solid cast that includes Bae Doo-na, one of the eight sensates in the US television series, Sense8. This drama was sold to Netflix for $200,000 per episode.
Synopsis: Secret Forest tells the story of an emotionless prosecutor who meets a warm-hearted detective cop and together finds their way to discover the innermost secrets within the “forest”— the prosecutors’ office which is full of corrupt officials and seems to conceal the truth about a murder case.
Why watch Secret Forest? I heard that it is really good, and there’s particular fan I know who can’t forget the background music of the drama while attending his class.
2. Tunnel (OCN) — 4.674 %
I love this show! Tunnel is not without flaws but it totally proved to be one of the best dramas I’ve watched so far this year. Many local viewers loved it too, hence it now holds the record of being the highest-rated OCN drama in history. It is one of only a few dramas whose first and last episode is the lowest- and highest-rated, respectively, signifying that it went on to gain more audience in every new episode.
Synopsis: A detective in 1986 ends up in 2017 after running through a tunnel while chasing a serial killer. He finds out that the criminal still roams around freely even after 30 years so he works with a modern-day detective to solve the case, believing that only by doing so can he go back to the past.
Why watch Tunnel? You’re a sucker for time-slip or crime thriller dramas that are high in quality.
1. Strong Woman Do Bong Soon (JTBC) — 7.649 %
JTBC didn’t have a single representative in the list of the highest-rated cable dramas in 2016 but luck seems to be on the network’s side this year. Not only does it secure an entry to this year’s top 10, but it’s even a strong contender for the no. 1 spot. It’s all thanks to Strong Woman Do Bong-soon, the drama that is literally the talk of the down during its run.
Synopsis: Do Bong-soon is born with an extraordinary strength that is hereditary and passed on to the women in her family. She has a long time crush on In Guk-doo, her childhood friend and a police detective who lives in the same neighborhood as her. She, Guk-doo and a gaming company CEO get caught up in a serial murder case that occurs in their neighborhood and consequently end up living together in one house for security reason.
Why watch Strong Woman Do Bong Soon? You can sacrifice a number of sleeping hours just to binge-watch a rom-com because you’re a romance drama sucker especially if the leads are among your favorites.
*Note: This drama count and ranking does not include weekend evening dramas from KBS, MBC, and SBS which usually receive relatively higher ratings than their weekday counterparts do. Hence, a high-rated drama like Father Is Strange is nowhere to be found here.