Could ‘Descendants of the Sun’ dethrone ‘Moon Embracing the Sun’?

March 25, 2016
A scene from KBS's "Descendants of the Sun" (Courtesy of KBS)

A scene from KBS’s “Descendants of the Sun” (Courtesy of KBS-TV)

By Park Sojung

SEOUL (Yonhap) — Anticipation is growing after the South Korean drama “Descendants of the Sun” achieved what has been perceived as near impossible here with the rise of cable channels recently: a terrestrial drama garnering more than 30 percent of viewers nationwide.

For those living under a rock, “Descendants of the Sun” is a popular KBS 2TV series that portrays the unlikely romance that develops between a South Korean special forces captain, Yoo Si-jin, and Dr. Kang Mo-yeon, who volunteers for a medical non-profit organization. They first meet in South Korea and then coincide again in the fictional war-ravaged country of Uruk.

For the first time since premiering on Feb. 24 in both South Korea and China — which made it the first South Korean show to do so — the show was watched by more than 30 percent of viewers across South Korea on its ninth episode Wednesday. In Seoul, the figure passed that milestone two weeks ago, so it had been widely considered a matter of time for the nationwide figure to follow.

The last terrestrial TV series to have reached that sacred territory was “Moon Embracing the Sun,” an MBC period drama from 2012. Considering that there has been a tectonic shift of sorts in the local TV scene in the past four years — most notably, with the rapid ascent of cable channel tvN — the feat by KBS 2TV is hoped to breathe life back into the terrestrial drama game, which has been in the doldrums for as long as one can remember.

'Moon Embracing the Sun' (Courtesy of MBC)

‘Moon Embracing the Sun’ (2012) (Courtesy of MBC-TV)

The “Descendants of the Sun” syndrome is also noteworthy in that the show was entirely pre-produced with no additional episodes to be made. The South Korean tradition has been to adjust the plot and characters on a real-time basis depending on the viewer response — a practice that resulted in part due to producers’ lack of confidence in their material.

But while pre-production has remained something of a taboo here, producers at the Yeouido district in Seoul invested 13 billion won (US$11.1 million) in the project that they couldn’t even say with certainty would take off. Combine that entrepreneurial spirit with the star-studded cast of actor Song Joong-ki and actress Song Hye-kyo, and pop writer Kim Eun-sook of “Lovers in Paris” and “The Heirs,” and we get the Asiawide sensation that is “Descendants of the Sun.”

There remains one more peak to scale for this Wednesday-Thursday night soap — turning that first digit of viewership figure to 4. “Moon Embracing the Sun” is the last show to have broken the 40 percent mark in the past five years. That show, which marked actor Kim Soo-hyun’s big TV break, surpassed 40 percent on its 16th episode, with the finale concluding with 42.2 percent. “Descendants of the Sun” — which has been following more or less the same, early trajectory of the MBC classic — might have a shot at similar success. And even if it doesn’t, KBS insiders say, they are happy with a viewership greater than 20 percent.

A scene from the popular KBS 2TV series "Descendants of the Sun" (Yonhap)

A scene from the popular KBS 2TV series “Descendants of the Sun” (Yonhap)

What “Descendants of the Sun” has also shown to South Korean TV producers is that a human interest, disaster-themed story — and not always the typical romantic comedy between a rich man and an average woman or vice versa — can be popular among viewers too. That such experimentation is appreciated by viewers has already been proven by tvN, the prolific cable network behind several drama successes, including the web cartoon-based office drama “Misaeng,” nostalgia-inducing coming-of-age story “Reply 1988″ and time-travel crime thriller “Signal.” It had remained to be seen, however, whether terrestrial channels would ever break away from their cookie-cutter style, risk-averse storytelling. “Descendants of the Sun” has done just that and is bound to open a new chapter for rival channels MBC and SBS.

In China, by the way, the response has been explosive, too. On iQiyi, the local video streaming website that holds the broadcasting rights for “Descendants of the Sun,” a combined 1 billion searches for episodes, press releases and other posts related to the show have been noted. A college student reportedly contracted glaucoma after watching too many episodes in one sitting. Media reports also say a couple divorced because the show made the husband jealous. Another man is said to have undergone plastic surgery to please his Song Joong-ki-obsessed wife. Chinese security authorities have also warned their people on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, of the “legal risks” that may result from being too infatuated with actor Song.

South Korean producers have long feared that “My Love from the Star,” an SBS sci-fi romantic comedy popular in late 2014 to early 2015, might have spelled the end of “hallyu,” or the Asiawide popularity of Korean pop culture, in China. But “Descendants of the Sun” seems to have disproved such concerns, as actor Song’s manager attests.

“I’ve been getting a phone call every three minutes asking for business deals with Song Joong-ki,” Kim Jung-yong said, adding he will exercise discretion in choosing which deals to pursue and which not to. “I think we’re going to have a lot of work to do in China.”

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