Major networks resort to ‘jump the shark’ series amid falling ratings

December 28, 2018

SEOUL, Dec. 28 (Yonhap) — South Korea’s three terrestrial networks have been failing miserably to attract television viewers for their dramas in the last few years. They are now trying more actively than ever to capture viewers’ attention with ridiculous or shocking storylines — with limited success.

Case in point is “The Last Empress,” a mystery period drama on SBS, written by Kim Soon-ok and featuring Jang Na-ra as a singer who is entangled in a murder case after becoming empress.

A scene from "The Last Empress" in this image provided by MBC. (Yonhap)
A scene from "Return" in this image provided by SBS. (Yonhap)
A poster of "My Mister" in this image provided by tvN (Yonhap)

A scene from “The Last Empress” in this image provided by MBC. (Yonhap)

The drama is replete with desperate and shocking story elements, apparently intended to grab instant attention from viewers, such as a murder, violence, extramarital affairs and, of course, a love triangle.

To be fair, the series has so far successfully convinced TV audiences, as demonstrated by high ratings, largely thanks to the writer Kim’s ability to smoothly weave those eye-popping elements together.

The Wednesday-Thursday series recorded 17.9 percent in viewership rating for its latest episode, which aired Thursday, according to Nielsen Korea, the highest among all the shows in the same time slot aired this year.

MBC TV’s “Return,” broadcast from Jan. 17 to March 22, was no difference. It was, numbers-wise, a success, with its rating peaking at 17.4 percent, but again the plotline went too far, showing disturbing and cruel scenes and indecent lines.

Aside from the aforementioned two weekday shows, only a few weekend series, such as KBS 2TV’s “Marry Me Now” and “My Only One,” which traditionally target family audiences, have managed to have marginal success. MBC and SBS have recently ditched shows that emphasize family values, and are airing instead more sensational dramas, like “A Pledge to God” and “Fates & Furies,” on weekends.

The moves by the major networks are a far cry from the ones by cable channels, like tvN and JTBC, which have produced a wide variety of genre and trendy shows, like “Mr. Sunshine,” “My Mister,” “Encounter,” “Misty” and “Sky Castle,” that achieved commercial as well as critical success.

The trend could indicate a divergence of audiences between the terrestrial networks and cable channels, some industry experts say, as younger people tend to tune in to cable channels for fresh formats and content, while older people still opt for weekend family shows.

For the terrestrial networks, one of the easiest — and cheapest — ways to keep audiences engaged is to use a plotline that is as arresting and scandalous as possible, critics say.