Asian dramas: Why Eastern TV series are appealing to an international viewership
TV dramas from China, Japan and South Korea have seen a major boost in popularity and production in the last several years. Why is this?
See the Substack posting of this data journalism piece here.
Emese Maczko is an Hungarian freelance writer whose publications focus on recipe creation and eco-conscious globetrotting. When she’s not concocting tasty bites in the kitchen or publishing listicles on sustainable accommodation options worldwide, Maczko enjoys settling down with a good Asian drama. “I have been watching Asian dramas for 3 years now,” she explains, reminiscing on how the Facebook Watch algorithm showed her snippets of the Chinese period piece Princess Agents in 2020 which eventually made her become “hooked.”
“They show me a different culture [that] otherwise I wouldn’t know about,” she continues, “I was bored with the US movie topics. I just could not find anything any more. I like Asian dramas especially for their different scenery, culture[s], language[s]. I love period dramas with vibrant costumes that help me get to know the culture and history better. And I quite like the magical aspects there as well.” Maczko primarily watches dramas from China and South Korea.
Maczko isn’t the only one who appreciates and cites the production quality and cultural value as reasons behind Asian dramas’ appeal. In a YouTube video uploaded to Netflix’s K-content channel, the hosts and “fangirls extraordinaire” Jen and Sarah discuss the global popularity of Korean dramas. In the video, which is part of a series entitled SwoonWorthy, Jen and Sarah explain that the global craze for K-dramas is rooted in how these shows not only authentically portray Korean culture but also connect with a worldwide viewership through both the exploration of inclusive themes and the representation of characters as vulnerable, quirky humans. This triad of factors are the basis for K-dramas and other Asian dramas being so universally relatable.
“I can relate more to characters from Asian dramas,” says Bella Peng, a reporter for the Beijing Review and a Beijing local who holds a master’s in film aesthetics, “given that these countries are all deeply influenced by Confucianism. I can understand their motivations and their struggles. Another thing I love about Asian dramas are the conflicts that often arise between traditional values, such as filial piety, respect for elders, the repression of emotions, and the current age.”
With Asian dramas' availability internationally steadily picking up speed since eastern countries began opening their borders in the late 1980s, Korean dramas have been the most prolific and popular. Data collected by the Kaggle user Lakshmi Indu Kosuri, a student at BVRIT Hyderabad College of Engineering for Women in India, according to their profile, shows that out of a sample of 5000 Asian drama titles ranging as far back as 1983 and produced in countries such as China, Japan and Thailand, Korean language dramas make up 33 percent of the included titles with the oldest one being 1995’s Sandglass.
This mass production of Korean stories along with the financial and distribution backing of on-demand streaming services such as Netflix, has in the last few years created an ouroboros effect between production and popularity, especially on Netflix itself. In July, the Netflix-focused news site What’s on Netflix ranked The Glory, a Korean drama about a woman out for revenge, as the eleventh most watched Netflix original for 2023 (“so far”). At the time of writing this piece, the recently released Korean romance Doona! was marked as the eighth most watched show for October 28th on Netflix by the data website FlixPatrol. Netflix’s own data puts the teen drama as number seven with 2,800,000 streams worldwide during the first week the story became available on the platform. It was released on October 20th.
In a 2021 Elle Magazine article on the history of K-dramas and their popularity, Japan’s formulaic approach to drama creation is cited as the birthplace of the “12 episode” structure. Today most Asian dramas generally run between 16 to 24 episodes and usually are wrapped up in one installment. The average length of the titles in the dataset is 21 episodes with only a handful of shows throughout the decades having additional seasons or runoffs. According to the data, one of the earliest series that saw additional seasons was the Japanese drama Glass Mask from 1997. It saw a second season the following year. Japanese dramas account for 24 percent of the sampled titles with the oldest inclusion being the 1983 drama Oshin.
“I like that the story arcs are typically complete[d] within one season, compared to most Western TV which run for as many seasons as possible depending upon popularity,” states Essa, an academic librarian from Canada who is currently based in Shanghai and has been a fan of Asian dramas for 15 years. She feels this simple installment approach “allows for more character development and plot resolution.” Currently Essa is binging dramas from Thailand because of their explorations into “themes” such as social class and character development around queerness.
Thai dramas are 12 percent of the 5000 sampled titles. As this percentage shows, countries that aren’t regarded as major economic powerhouses in the global arena aren’t seeing much international attention given to their dramas. But in a sort of trickle down effect, thanks to the popularity of Korean and Chinese productions, this is changing. What’s on Netflix announced in September that an adaptation of the Indonesian novel Cigarette Girl is planned to be released on the on-demand streaming service this November.
With so many titles to watch from Korean horror and Chinese period pieces to Japanese action dramas and Thai romances, how does an Asian drama fan choose to watch one show over another?
For Peng and fellow Beijing-based drama aficionado Zihui, there are a plethora of factors that come into play, such as plot line and particular actors.
“I really like [the] Chinese actor Xiao Zhan, so I will watch many of his TV dramas,” Zihui explains, citing two titles that the Chinese actor and singer has starred in.
Peng agrees and states: “Often in Chinese, Japanese and Korean dramas, actors who are known for their acting skills are a guarantee for good production. Many actors have their own persona and I love to see how their on-stage persona fits them into certain roles.”