The economics of South Korean TV

Fascinating article on the unabashed leveraging of product placement to finance the ever popular South Korean TV dramas.

While details of product placement deals are not disclosed, industry sources say exposure on popular shows costs at least 100 million won ($96,000) and much more for a hit drama featuring A-list stars with a regional following.

The biggest spender of all is Samsung — the world’s largest technology firm by revenue — which sponsors around two thirds of all domestically-produced soap operas, according to Kim Si-hyun, head of 153 Production, a major PPL agency in Seoul.

“It’s a full package, meaning all visible consumer electronics like smartphones, computers, cameras, air conditioners, TVs and refrigerators are Samsung products, from beginning to end,” Kim said.

Commodification of the dramas begins at the earliest stage of production, once a script writer has produced a basic story line listing characters and their professions.

The workplaces that will feature in the show are offered for sale to real companies looking for exposure.

According to Kim from 153 Production, the workplace of a lead character can go for between 500 million and 1 billion won.

That was how the female lead in “The Heirs” — a teenage romance that was a huge hit in Asia last year — ended up working for Mango Six.

More of note within, including just how effective such placement can be.

The South Korean TV industry is a machine. In the time a US studio takes to make one 24 episode season of television, South Korea will have produced two or more 30 to 50 hour K-dramas. Some of that relies on some brutal filming schedules as I've heard from some of my film school classmates that have worked in Korea, but it also comes from a heavy reliance on story archetypes, simplified lighting setups, and a stable of goto actors that cut down casting lead times. It's a formula, but thus far it hasn't exhausted its millions of devoted viewers throughout Asia.

Entertainment as export

Apparently Pop Coreano, or Korean Pop, is quite popular. 

That niche — an amalgamation of spectacular entertainment and relentless optimism — resonates with teenagers in South American nations. The values these stars represent are almost “Confucian,” says Professor Patrick Messerlin, a French economist who has produced an economic analysis of K-pop and who earlier this year addressed a cultural forum in Seoul on the music’s globalization. In his research, Messerlin found that “K-pop performers deliver a sense of modesty and restraint,” and “insist on working hard and learning more” during public appearances, something Western pop artists do not do. Their music represents a “new, colorful and cheerful start,” and not “an old order,” something that will easily appeal to millions of young Central and South Americans, living where economic challenges are rife and nondemocratic regimes common. K-pop’s positive energy is a world away from the introspective, jaded and at times downright depressing style of much Anglophone rock, indie and emo. “[The Koreans] say, ‘We understand your problems,’” Messerlin explains, “‘We went through it too,’” referring to the Korean War and the economic crash of the late 1990s.

For the fans, there is no contest. K-pop songs “are beautiful, are decent,” says Jenii Ramirez, an 18-year-old K-pop fan from Colombia, where TV station Caracol has been broadcasting a K-pop talent show and where K-pop concerts in the capital, Bogotá, lure audiences of at least 5,000. The singers, Ramirez says, have “dedication and are taught to fight in life, understanding that dreams are attainable.”