The Business of Korean Dramas: Air Time

An itsy bitsy news story has been appearing on Korean Drama and K Pop sites in the last week – “Networks agree to cut air time of dramas and variety shows” is the common headline. So why does this matter? Because it provides another opportunity to use Siwon KOD GIFs to learn about the business side of Korean Drama. Yep, that little news story seems much sweeter after you look at:


Told you. Cheers!

So they are cutting the air time of dramas and varieties – so what?!
Well, obviously you are going to have less time with your favorite shows. The time cut is not significant at first glance, but when you do the math….

For a one hour drama you are losing around 1 ½ episodes per a 20 episode show, which in my opinion can be pretty noticeable (given the sometimes complex nature of plots in drama land and the hilarious nature of variety programming). And for a variety, you are losing roughly 3 episodes a year. That is 3 less episodes with Yoo Jae Suk! I suddenly feel:

end of world

Okay, so I am losing an episode. Why?

SBS, MBC, and KBS agreed to cut air time- because of advertising and the humaneness of the production environment. The last cooperative network agreement (between KBS, SBS, and MBC) occurred in 2008. That agreement set the current (soon to be changed) air time of dramas and variety programming- all due to the issue of excessive competition.

The problem of excessive competition stemmed from risky broadcasting decisions- in order to compete (or let’s beat everyone at the get-go) broadcasters were headhunting for the highest ratings with little regard for quality. In other words – an f***ed up mess was haphazardly played out on the telly (with a goal of the most reward for the least risk). So the broadcasters decided to agree on a standard length, which would hopefully make for better quality television. Unlike the agreement of a week ago, advertising was not a major factor. Why? Well In regards to advertising revenue the broadcasters already had a friendly helper in KOBACO.


What is KOBACO?

No, it is not a tasty sauce. But it is fun to say! KOBACO is short for the Korea Broadcasting Advertising Corporation – and the KOBACO monopoly (nope- the business monopoly not the board game) ended in 2012. For a quick and dirty rundown – KOBACO was a long arm of the Korean government, holding absolute power over advertising for the big 3. You want to air your commercial during a drama? You have to go through KOBACO, at least until 2012. KOBACO hired (ahem approved) the advertisers, and without a contract with KOBACO your awesome commercial was a no-go.

Huh… So advertising is essentially run by the government?

Not anymore, but it was. If that is hard to believe then you may find it interesting how the big 3 broadcasters came to be. In 1980, General Chun Doo-Hwan gained control of Korea after a bloodless coupe. The new dictator was none too keen on the broadcasting stations that reported his actions in a bad light, therefore he did what any good dictator would do – he shut them down.

Before the mass shutdown there were 29 radio and broadcasting companies, after the shutdown there were 3. No less than 5, count them 5, television stations were merged with KBS. Oh, and to make things more controllable the remaining broadcasters were very much controlled by the government (to this day 100% of KBS is owned by the government and 70% of MBC). Talk about stopping the presses. Nowadays the number of broadcasting stations is not restricted, in other words there are no forced mergers going on and new channels are allowed to setup shop.


The regime of Chun Doo Hwan bore the entity of KOBACO, centralizing all advertising. However not everyone views KOBACO’s existence as a bad thing; after all having a central place for advertising ensured that even smaller (or new, when they were allowed) broadcasters had a piece of the ad revenue pie. This all ended in 2012, when KOBACO lost its monopoly over broadcasting advertisements.

So 2012 killed KOBACO’s monopoly – why and how come my dramas are being shortened?!

In 2012 KOBACO quit being the only advertising sales agency in town (cause they were found unconstitutional, imagine that) which means that broadcasting corporations need to look for their own ad revenue. Unfortunately (and kind of unbelievably) the broadcasters are not doing so well securing their own commercials.

so it all comes doewn to

So it comes down to commercials?!
Yes and no. Largely yes, because if dramas are unable to find advertisers they are not making money. If they are not making money they have little incentive to air dramas for a longer period of time. And what is the “no” in this answer? Well, there are other reasons dramas have been shortened; production costs and the grueling and horrid work hours of the entire cast and crew.

KBS’s Drama Production Director, Lee Kang Hyun, said:

“Lately, drama production has become labor intensive, and the commercial market has not be faring well. Currently, as dramas have an airtime of 80 minutes including commercial time, the number of dramas unable to sell all of its commercials slots is increasing. The goal of agreeing to 67 minutes of broadcast time is for the production environment to transform into a more humane setting and to also help with the reduction of drama production fees.”

An official from KBS’s variety show department said:

“Previously, variety shows usually aired for 80 minutes, and sometimes we would extend the broadcast time. However, taking into consideration the constant competitive components of the broadcasting field, the burden of the editing staff, filming concluding past midnight, as well as the burden of viewership were reasons enough to take these steps towards change.”

The Issues

  • Korean broadcasters, once faced with independence in the advertising realm, found it difficult to secure advertising on their own.
  • Lost advertising revenue is making it harder for dramas and variety programming to break even, reducing air time facilitates a reduction in production costs while retaining advertising space (think same revenue for less expense).
  • Anyone that has read about the live shoot system would agree – this type of schedule is not cool. For the directors, the writers, the actors, the sound guy, or the hired hand, working nonstop for days is not the way to treat employees. Reducing air time will reduce the amount of time these hard working individuals go without sleep (theoretically at least).

So how to deal with this piece of news? Less drama time, less variety time, but a happier cast and crew? I think this can be answered rather simply. Queue Siwon:



“Ask a Korean!” : Media Strike in Korea. 12 June 2012. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

“Broadcasting Ad Market Faces Upheaval.” HanCinema. 2 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

“Doing Business in South Korea.” Practical Law. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

“Broadcast Companies KBS, MBC, and SBS Reduce Variety Show and Drama Airtime.” Soompi. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

“Kobaco Preparing for End of Its TV Monopoly.” HanCinema. 20 Jan. 2011. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

Kwak, Ki-Sung. Media and Democratic Transition in South Korea. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print. 

Porter, Michael E., and Hirotaka Takeuchi. Korean Showbiz Cluster: Microeconomics of Competitiveness. Harvard Business School. 10 May 2013. Web. 1 Oct. 2013.

12 thoughts on “The Business of Korean Dramas: Air Time

    • I would like to think that it will not be noticeable, the drama industry will adapt. Yet knowing I will lose 1 1/2 episodes per a 20 episode drama is a little enlightening (at least in my opinion). Yet, I support this decision if it brings about a better working environment for the production crew, actors included.

    • I think it makes a difference to the cast and crew. It takes hours of work to make that five mins of drama! Which explains why the numerous fillers and flashbacks we always see in dramas–it’s the easiest way to fill time. I do hope that this doesn’t impact on their wages though i.e less pay coz of less hours, but come to think of it, they don’t pay on an hourly scale. As for me as a viewer, losing the equivalent of 1-2 episodes per drama will make a difference, an improvement it if means that I get less filler!

      A great post Lore!

      • I totally agree, and I hope it does make a difference to the cast and crew. What I really meant was that I’m wondering if that 5 minutes will actually translate to hours of work, or if they’ll just cut 5 minutes of flashbacks (i’d be happy with that as well though, lol). I think it can only be a good thing to shorten episodes, they’re too long as it is. Now we’ve just gotta got them down to 45 minutes, and they’ll be perfect.

      • Ah I see. Good point there. Actually, now that I think about it, tvN dramas are 43-45 mins, but still plenty of flashbacks! HAH.

  1. I love these posts! Any insight at all into how the sausage is made I find oddly fascinating. (And the gifs are a stroke of genius. ;))

    I’m okay with drama episodes getting shortened. Sometimes they’re so long it’s hard to carve out a chunk of time to watch. Plus, I’ll go for a more tightly and intelligently told shorter story then a rambling mess. (Not, of course, that it’ll always work out that way… but I can hope! :D)

  2. Reblogged this on RandomSoju and commented:
    Reblogging this awesome breakdown of air time changes with networks and Korean dramas and variety shows, and how the advertising business and government (changes) ties into it. Thanks to Love in Stone Cities for posting this, and with sources listed, that’s awesome. Disclaimer: This reblog has nothing to do with the Siwon content. No really, I mean it. Seriously! Okay, okay, so he’s so not ugly and he totally enhanced the educational content. Just consider the pretty a nice bonus! 😉

  3. This is definitely a good move although my cynical nature tells me that this due to falling ad revenue and declining ratings, and not so much wanting to improve the insane working conditions, but if the nett result is that actors and crew have a little less on their plate, it’s all good!

  4. I love these posts! They are very informative and really allows you to understand more about the drama industry. You should write more of these. I really enjoy reading them. (:

    I don’t really mind about dramas being shortened as long as the drama still gets to be told. Sometimes it is better with a shorter drama so that things do not get too draggy. Plus, I am all supportive of this if this means that the actors and production team gets a better working environment because if they are happy, the drama will turn out to be better.

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