SEOUL, April 28 (Korea Bizwire) — When South Korean actor Cha Tae-hyun stood on the podium to accept his KBS Drama Awards in December, he spoke what has been on his colleagues’ mind for years.
“I hope we actors no longer receive our scripts in a piecemeal fashion,” Cha, who played the lead man in the KBS 2TV comedy series “The Producers,” said.
Actor Joo Won, who portrayed the titular character on SBS’s hit drama “Yongpal,” said much the same after the series wrapped up a successful season.
“We pulled all-nighters every night like crazy for two straight months,” he said on a variety show. “One time, I was driven to the set receiving IV therapy in the car. At that moment, I knew I would die an early death.”
Like Cha and Joo, South Korean actors have traditionally acted on bits and pieces of screenplay because viewers have made the verdict over where the story should head next. Although networks have steered shows in ways that would produce higher viewership this way, the practice of filming on an ongoing basis has been criticized for fomenting poor working conditions for actors and producers to whom pulling all-nighters has become a way of life.
But all of that may be changing after “Descendants of the Sun,” a South Korean runaway hit drama that has mesmerized TV junkies both here in South Korea and in China. After the show, which was filmed entirely in advance, producing the complete season before a show’s premiere date has become all the rage, and more and more networks are considering adopting the way the U.S., Japan, China and now the creators of this megahit South Korean series make shows.
For the “Descendants of the Sun” uninitiated, a few numbers should shed light on the extent of its success and the impact it has had on the local TV industry. The blockbuster-style melodrama about a special forces captain and a volunteer doctor falling in love in a fictional central Asian country captured 38.8 percent in viewers on its final episode in South Korea. Considering no South Korean week night show has come close to the 40-percent mark in four years, and with non-traditional platforms increasingly eating into terrestrial networks’ viewership, that is a ground-breaking record, TV experts say.’
In China, where the series premiered on the same date for the first time for a South Korean series, the show has been watched more than 2.7 billion times on the local video platform iQiyi, which holds the exclusive rights to stream it in the world’s second-largest economy. The Chinese title of the show has remained on top of Weibo’s most-searched keyword list for weeks straight, and actor Song Joong-ki has earned “national husband figure” status after playing the pretty-faced but macho Capt. Yoo Si-jin.
Early production has actually been an ongoing phenomenon for the past year in South Korea, as producers try to overcome the hurdles of Chinese censorship. Since China started to require all foreign content to be screened prior to broadcast, South Korean producers making shows for China have more or less been forced to work around that schedule.
Several South Korean shows are currently in the works for Chinese TV, the most notable of which is “Saimdang, the Herstory,” which stars “hallyu” actors Lee Young-ae and Song Seung-heon. The show was announced in May 2015, and will launch in the latter half of this year after eight months of intensive filming and editing.
Other shows being filmed for Chinese viewers include “Uncontrollably Fond,” featuring actor Kim Woo-bin and singer Suzy. The show will premiere on KBS 2TV and the Chinese video website Youku Tudou on July 6. “Descendants” just happened to be the first show to be produced entirely in advance and achieve multinational success, and experts say the feat will likely add momentum to the trend already starting.’
Obviously, for many South Korean actors, the shift to early production is a welcome phenomenon. Actor Ahn Jae-wook, who is among the first actors to ignite the Asiawide popularity of Korean pop culture known as “hallyu” here, has expressed his “unconditional” support for pre-premiere production.
“There needs to be more cases like ‘Descendants of the Sun’ for hallyu to develop,” Ahn, who filmed the first pre-made show in South Korea, said. “Not being able to predict the viewer response is both an advantage and a disadvantage…. As long as the show finds its focus, there are many more advantages than disadvantages to early production.”
Even some networks have come to accept the change, as they seek new sources of revenue outside the South Korean market.
“Early production only started because of the change in the local TV market,” Bae Kyung-soo, chief producer at KBS, said. “To penetrate the Chinese market, it is essential to produce shows in advance, so even if the trend is only temporary, our production system must revolve around China.”
The pressure is mounting for producers, and many have complained that “Descendants” has set the bar too high.
“‘Descendants’ was the first show to premiere in South Korea and China at the same time and the first show to be made in advance,” an official with a production company, who asked not to be named, said. “We are feeling overwhelmed because our upcoming show will surely be compared to it.”
There is also the risk of unconfirmed spoilers circulating prior to the broadcast of an episode, producers say.
“People might have things they’d want to brag about, but they would have to keep it quiet and be careful when talking to the media,” another production company official said.
But overall, early filming seems to be the way production is headed, as more South Korean producers adopt the go-big-or-go-home mindset.
“Obviously, there will be more Chinese investments if more South Korean shows succeed in China,” a publicist for a South Korean TV show, who asked for anonymity, said. “More distribution channels, like online platforms and TV networks, will open up if we produce more dramas like ‘Descendants.’”