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CJ ENM exec Sebastian Kim discusses the next wave of Korean content
If you’ve been a regular viewer of Korean dramas in the last decade, chances are CJ ENM is behind a significant chunk of your favorite shows, like 2019’s Crash Landing on You, the thrilling rom-com about a South Korean woman meeting a North Korean soldier that prompted a new wave of interest in K-dramas at the start of the pandemic. Or 2018’s Mr. Sunshine, the epic period show following star-crossed lovers living in the years before Japan’s early 20th century occupation of Korea. Or more recently, 2022’s Twenty-Five Twenty-One, the refreshing coming-of-age story about a high school athlete’s journey to becoming the top fencer in the country. All of these dramas, along with Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, Signal, and the Reply series originally aired on tvN in Korea. The network is under CJ ENM, and in the last few years the network’s dramas have become more available than ever to viewers outside of South Korea.
Sebastian Kim, the head of International Content Sales and Acquisition at CJ ENM since March 2021, has helmed much of the effort in bringing tvN’s K-dramas overseas. CJ ENM has four main divisions — TV, film, music and K-pop, and animation — and Kim focuses on distributing TV and animation content globally. At KCON LA, an annual convention celebrating Korean culture that took place between Aug. 19 and 21 this year, Kim sat down with TV Guide and talked about how the landscape for K-dramas has changed since he first joined CJ ENM in 2007, which platforms fans can expect to see more K-dramas, and where CJ ENM is going next.
Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin, Crash Landing on You
tvN is CJ ENM’s biggest general entertainment channel and first launched in 2006. The platform had the goal of targeting younger audiences from the start. "KBS, MBC, SBS… they produced it for the older demographic," he said of content from other major Korean networks. "When tvN launched, our catchphrase at that time was, we were different TV." The channel targeted viewers from 25 to 49, with the core focus being the age range from 25 to 30s. "If you look at our ratings, our demographics are much younger than the terrestrials,’" he said of the other networks.
Creating shows for younger audiences often meant making dramas that were shorter — most tvN dramas are 16 episodes long and consist of one season — and staying away from tropes. Kim gave examples of concepts that shows made for older audiences typically include: "The love triangle, always. The conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, family issues," he said. "They’re closer to telenovelas. We are trying to stay away from that."
Still, it took some years for CJ ENM dramas to gain traction globally. "We tried to distribute [overseas] since we produced our own content, but it wasn’t selling that well at that time," Kim said. "2007, that’s the time when this Korean wave was lesser." Korean entertainment — whether it’s Korean TV, Korean movies, or Korean pop music — had not received anywhere near the level of international recognition it has today. "We were knocking on the doors of other TV channels overseas at the time. That’s a time when only Japan bought our content," Kim recalled. "That’s like early 2000s."
In the 2010s, Kim saw something different. "CJ drama from 2010 to 2015, we tried many things," Kim explained. "But our popularity really popped off from [around] 2017 when we started distributing Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, Signal, the Reply series." He attributes much of these shows’ success to tvN’s focus in reaching younger viewers.
Among the major U.S. streaming platforms, Netflix has led the way in bringing K-dramas to global audiences. And in recent years, many of the most popular series on the streamer have been tvN shows. "We have to give it to them, Netflix, they played a great role in expanding the popularity of Korean content," Kim said. "They [aired] CJ content, Mr. Sunshine, that’s 2018." And many dramas followed. "2019 onwards, they tried a lot of Korean content mainly from CJ."
Kim Tae-ri, Mr. Sunshine
But Kim and his team are not stopping at Netflix. "We have other global streamer partners, who also want Korean content after looking at Netflix’s success formula," he said. "Disney+, Apple TV, Amazon or all these global streamers are having discussions with CJ if not already." CJ ENM is also engaging with platforms like HBO Max, Hulu, and Peacock, he shared. "Hopefully, we can bring more of our good quality content to all the global streamers so that anybody who has any app they prefer can enjoy Korean content," Kim said.
As for deciding the CJ ENM-produced shows that go to each platform, Kim said that every network has its preferences. "Viki, they are more into rom-coms. They’re a great partner who enjoys our rom-coms or softer kind of content," he explained. "Whereas iQiyi, they want to do more general entertainment, heavy blockbuster Korean content — that’s why they did Jirisan."
For Netflix and Disney, Kim described them as wanting "the best." When asked about what that means, Kim said budget and quality are huge factors. "Even CJ TV shows, the drama budget varies from a million dollar per episode up to three, four times more," Kim said. "For instance, there is one show on Netflix called Alchemy of Souls. If you look at the show, there are huge CGI included there, those are more [high-]quality and it’s more expensive to produce." In 2019, CJ ENM launched a production studio in Paju City. "It’s a huge TV studio like Fox studio, NBC studio," Kim said. "That drama, Alchemy of Souls, is shooting from there. So we try to invest more to produce better TV shows." Little Women, the tvN series currently airing weekly new episodes on Netflix, also used the Paju City facility for production.
Kim Go-eun, Little Women
In August, CJ ENM launched the channel CJ ENM Picks on Peacock. In addition to Korean dramas and films, the channel offers unscripted shows. "I see the return on the viewership is coming more from the variety shows and the K-pop shows," Kim said. He gave examples of the reality series Youn’s Kitchen and the music program M Countdown. Prior to Peacock, CJ ENM launched a similar channel on Pluto TV.
Kim is looking at other platforms to bring this type of Korean entertainment to. "By end of this year, my focus and my team’s focus is to have more outlets to show this content on Tubi, on Freevee, or on Roku. These are the partners that we’ve been engaging," he said.
As for CJ ENM’s unscripted shows, Kim said there are two approaches to distribution. "Selling the finished reality, variety shows," he described of one of them. "The second is having a partnership with a CJ format." Kim shared an example of the latter. "There is a one very successful format from CJ, it’s called I Can See Your Voice," he said. "Currently, it’s on Fox, we went into [it] for two seasons. I think we’re discussing for the next season as well." Another format that Kim has been working on is the one for My Boyfriend Is Better. In this competition show, women place bets on their own boyfriend — or another woman’s boyfriend — who they believe to be the best singer. "It’s same TV network [as I Can See Your Voice], which is MNET," Kim said. "So we are looking for that to be traveling in U.S."
Another series that Kim hopes will travel is EXChange. It’s a reality show featuring couples who have broken up, and participants have the opportunity to rekindle their relationship or form a new one with another participant. "We’re trying to export that format to different countries," Kim said.
Ken Jeong, I Can See Your Voice
Whether it’s unscripted television or scripted, one thing is clear: Korean content is here to stay and will only find new — and more diverse — fans in the years to come.
K-Dramas Are Coming to a Lot More Streamers Than Netflix – TV Guide
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