Netflix pursues wider Asian audience with Korean content

May 1, 2018
A still from "Busted! I Know Who You Are," Netflix's first original Korean variety show set to be released on May 4. (Yonhap)

A still from “Busted! I Know Who You Are,” Netflix’s first original Korean variety show set to be released on May 4. (Yonhap)

By Shim Sun-ah and Youn Go-eun

SEOUL, April 26 (Yonhap) — Since its US$50 million investment in “Okja” by acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho generated wide media attention last year, Netflix has aggressively expanded original Korean content in the pursuit of a wider Asian audience.

The U.S. streaming giant is scheduled to release its first original Korean variety show “Busted!,” starring top-tier comedian Yoo Jae-suk, on May 4.

The show is highly anticipated for its heavy-hitting cast and directors, many of whom are from the popular SBS variety show “Running Man,” such as Yoo, Lee Kang-soo and director Cho Hyo-jin. It will also feature other top Korean Wave stars such as Ahn Jae-wook and EXO’s Sehun as well as Kim Jong-min, Park Min-young and Gugudan’s Kim Sejeong as main cast members.

“Busted!” is also Yoo’s first variety show after MBC’s longtime favorite “Infinite Challenge” aired its last episode at the end of last month after a 13-year run.

The new show, which will become available in 190 countries in 25 languages, will see the seven main cast members position themselves as sloppy detectives set out to solve a mystery in each episode.

Netflix has been churning out tons of promotional materials for the forthcoming show, apparently pinning great hopes on it to go deeper into the Korean market.

A promotional poster for "Busted! I Know Who You Are," Netflix's first original Korean variety show set to be released on May 4. (Yonhap)

A promotional poster for “Busted! I Know Who You Are,” Netflix’s first original Korean variety show set to be released on May 4. (Yonhap)

In a departure from its traditional method of uploading all episodes of a series at the same time, the company will upload the 10-episode series over five weeks, releasing two episodes each week.

“Considering the characteristics of the mystery-solving show, we judged that it would be easier to arouse interest among viewers to release two episodes each week,” a Netflix official said.

Netflix is also seeking collaboration with YG Entertainment, one of South Korea’s three largest entertainment agencies, along with SM and JYP, to produce various shows featuring YG artists.7

The streaming service will soon provide the second part of YG-managed writer-television personality Yoo Byung-jae’s stand-up comedy, titled “Yoo Byung-jae’s Black Comedy,” after its first part was received well on the service last month.

“We put out ‘Yoo Byung-jae’s Black Comedy’ with English subtitles, and confirmed its popularity in other countries as well as in Korea. We’re going to provide the second part soon,” the Netflix official said.

Also under co-production with YG is what might be Netflix’s second original Korean variety show.

Set in YG’s fictional future strategy department, “YG FSO (Future Strategy Office)” will see Seungri of the K-pop boy band BIGBANG and his problematic colleagues who were transferred to the unpopular department struggle to save the company from crisis and successfully return to where they were before.

Other YG stars, such as Yoo Byung-jae, BIGBANG’s Daesung, iKON, WINNER, Sandara Park, Black Pink will make cameos. The eight-episode series will be on the service within this year, according to Netflix.

Earlier this month, Netflix announced a plan to hire five to six employees in South Korea who will begin their work in early May.

Cast members of "YG FSO" pose for the camera. (Yonhap)

Cast members of “YG FSO” pose for the camera. (Yonhap)

They will be in charge of the production and overseas distribution of Korean content and the number of Korean employees will increase to 10 to 15 by the end of the year, according to the company. Netflix has been operating in the country through its Asia-Pacific headquarters in Singapore.

The streaming giant’s aggressive investment in content featuring Korean stars with large followings in other Asian countries caused jitters among local television networks already suffering from intense competition with various media and platforms.

“If Netflix, armed with an enormous content budget, keeps producing big-budget variety shows, we’ll be probably unable to beat it,” a TV variety show producer said, requesting not to be named.

Also among the company’s original Korean series coming this year is “Love Alarm” based on the webtoon of Chon Kye-young and “Kingdom” by award-winning screenwriter Kim Eun-hee of “Signal” and director Kim Seong-hoon of “Tunnel.”

Starring Bae Doona, Ju Ji-hoon and Ryu Seung-ryong, the six-part series “Kingdom” is a zombie drama set in the Joseon period (1392-1910). It is currently on filming for possible release in October.

But things were quite different when the company launched its service in South Korea in 2016. The biggest problem of Netflix’s slow growth in the Korean market at first was its shortage of Korean-language content compared with local streaming services. Aware of the problem, Netflix has since aggressively added popular local TV shows to its slates to secure more subscribers and seen the influx of a growing number of viewers in Korea and other Asian countries. Among the popular Korean titles available are tvN’s “Prison Playbook” and “A Korean Odyssey”; JTBC’s “MAN x Man” “Hyori’s Home Stay”; and OCN’s “Black.”

A promotional poster for South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's Netflix movie "Okja" (Yonhap)

A promotional poster for South Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Netflix movie “Okja” (Yonhap)

Netflix refused to disclose its official Korean subscriber numbers, deeming that confidential business information, but said that the number has been steadily rising.

Analysts say that Korea will become an increasingly important market in Asia for Netflix as it seeks to diversify its business centered on the English-speaking world.

The strength of Korean content appears to be low-cost-but-good-quality value.

“Okja” cost $50 million to produce, making it the most expensive Korean-language film ever. The budget, however, is still lower than average Hollywood blockbusters. The drama series “Kingdom” cost a reported 1.5-2 billion won (US$1.4-1.8 million) per episode, only one-fifth of the cost for average American shows.