It’s the time of year when the major networks and distributors put on their showcase events, revealing the titles that will be hitting the market in the near future. In among the traditional big companies, however, K7 recently attended an eye-opening showcase held in London.
A collaboration between UK trade body PACT, and its Korean counterpart KOCCA, the aim wasn’t just to blow the trumpet for new formats but to forge deeper and long-lasting production ties between the countries.
It’s no coincidence that this is happening right when Korea is trending – and not just because of the Winter Olympics. After many years of bubbling under, 2017 was the year that Korean TV broke through in the west. The biggest hit of the US fall season debuts was The Good Doctor, a remake of the 2013 KBS drama about a brilliant autistic surgeon who must balance his methodical genius with the need to empathise with his patients. A feel-good medical procedural, it’s exactly the sort of show that western networks have been crying out for.
Yet the groundswell of interest in Korean formats is not limited to scripted shows. Unlike the trend for Nordic Noir, which was a gamechanger for drama but had no impact on the wider TV landscape, this wave of Korean content is covering many bases and genres. NBC has ordered a second season of celebrity travelogue Better Late Than Never, based on tvN’s Grandpas Over Flowers, and Fox is now producing a US version of MBC’s secret celebrity talent show The Masked Singer.
Korean formats are clearly fresh enough to capture the imagination of western audiences
It’s interesting enough whenever a new country breaks through in the international format market, but what makes Korea’s situation so unique is that it is being driven by a desire to forge partnerships rather than just deals. KOCCA is helping to fund pilots and facilitate IP-sharing arrangements, leading to projects like Kitchen Cashback from Denham Productions and Cenmedia, and NBCU and MBC’s The Game with No Name.
Nor is this a one-way street, with content flowing east to west. ITV Studios has its ongoing partnership with CJ E&M, and BBC Worldwide has sold remake rights for UK hits Life on Mars, Mistresses and Luther to South Korean partners.
The reason for this opening of the floodgates is largely political, as military tensions between the US, North Korea and the huge neighbouring market of China, have seen South Korea’s content producers hit hard by strict Korean import restrictions imposed by Chinese broadcast regulator SAPPRFT in 2016. This coincided with the arrival of western companies – including hungry SVODs such as Netflix – eager to forge new pipelines for content.
But, crucially, this flow would not have picked up speed if there was no demand for the material, and Korean formats – both scripted and unscripted – are clearly fresh enough to capture the imagination of western audiences. Rather than a trending blip, we suspect this could be a long-term arrangement.