Netflix is ready for you to watch a lot more Korean TV

It was last year’s most unlikely TV phenomenon, the ultra-violent Korean series that became Netflix’s number one show of all time.

At its peak, Squid Game’s record-setting run saw it reign as the most viewed Netflix show in 94 countries, with 95 per cent of its viewership coming from outside Korea. According to the streamer, viewers watched 1.65 billion hours of Squid Game in its first 28 days on the platform (Bridgerton’s 625 million viewers in the same period is the second-placed show on that list).

Squid Game is Netflix’s biggest hit of all time.Credit:Netflix

Squid Game’s success also caused a global run on Netflix’s other Korean shows including Sweet Home, Hellbound and space-thriller The Silent Sea, which all entered Netflix’s top 10 charts outside Korea.

It’s little wonder, then, that Netflix has doubled down on Korean content for 2022.

“We showcased 15 original shows last year, and this year we’re doing 25,” says Don Kang, VP of content for Netflix Korea. “Next year, it’s unlikely that will go down… Korean content is becoming one of the main pillars of global entertainment.”

You can almost picture the boardrooms at Netflix’s Australian headquarters whenever the Korean example comes up, studio executives furiously pondering how to emulate its global streaming success (eh, maybe not with stuff like – checks notes – “Tidelands”). So how did they do it?

“The success that we had last year, we planted the seed years ago,” Kang says. Netflix first entered the Korean market in 2016; its first original series was the 2017 romantic drama, Love Alarm.

“At that time we were testing the possibilities of Korean content, how it could work. But we had success before. Kingdom is one of the iconic series we produced,” Kang says of the hit 2019 period thriller. “Sweet Home is another that did well in Korea and outside of Korea, too.

“What was specifically different last year is that the level of engagement for shows like Squid Game, Hellbound, My Name, The Silent Sea, it far exceeded our expectations. The successes we had last year, it really proved our belief in the Korean creative community.”

To devotees of hallyu, the term given to the international proliferation of Korean pop culture since the ’90s, Korea’s global takeover of Netflix might’ve made complete sense. Even before today’s ubiquitous K-pop groups like BTS and Blackpink were dominating global streaming playlists, acts like Rain, 2NE1 and, of course, Psy, were courting international attention. Before Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite was the toast of Hollywood in 2020, Park Chan-Wook’s Vengeance Trilogy, including Oldboy, was wowing the early ’00s festival circuit.

Park Kyu-young in Netflix Korea’s pre-Squid Game hit, Sweet Home.Credit:Netflix

Squid Game’s success stems from the same context, says Kang.

“In Korea, we have a very well-established system where cinemas and broadcasting channels have been producing great content in a very competitive environment for decades, and the audience expectation around the standards of that content is super high. So in order for a creator to be chosen to tell their story and be beloved by the public, they need to go through a lot of thinking and make sure the production quality is great,” he says.

“That’s just the beginning, that’s where we start. And so, we have this belief in Korean content that, ‘Okay, if you make great content in Korea and it works for the local audience, then we have a shot at making it big across the world.’”

Netflix’s investment, which topped $US500 million last year, played its part too.

“When we produce or license a show and put it on our service, we make sure the original vision of the creator is conveyed to the end user. That’s why we invest so much in the dubbing and in the subtitles,” Kang says. “Without those you could have all the greatest content from Korea, but it would just be lost to the outside world.”

This year Netflix is launching 25 new Korean series, its largest run to date. The titles include All Of Us Are Dead, a high school zombie thriller that plays like a pulp COVID-19 allegory, and Juvenile Justice, a legal drama set in a juvenile court.

Yoon Chan-young as Lee Cheong-san in Netflix Korea’s upcoming zombie thriller, All of Us Are Dead.Credit:Yang Hae-sung/Netflix

“Sometimes people wonder, ‘Oh, there are so many zombie stories, what new can you do?’, but I think the creators did a good job producing something that’s uniquely Korean, and by having the school element it’s able to tell the story in a very different tone,” Kang says of All Of Us Are Dead.

Juvenile Justice deals with the juvenile justice system in Korea, but I’m sure different countries have their own socio-political issues around crimes committed by the underage population,” he adds. “I think it’s the right time for this type of story to be told, and I think this one will be very relevant and have an impact on the society in Korea.”

Other titles include a Korean remake of the Spanish hit Money Heist (La Casa De Papel) and Seoul Vibe, a film where “the adventures of a special-ops team take place against the backdrop of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games”.

While Netflix’s most notable Korean successes – including Squid Game, Hellbound and Sweet Home – have centred on dark, edgy content, the new slate signals the streamer’s determined push into different genres.

“Traditionally, the Korean content that travelled best outside of Korea were mostly romantic-comedy series, so there’s an interesting parallel between what was already happening and what Netflix is doing,” Kang says.

“But we have a very concrete plan of expanding the types of content that we produce. We want to get the right formula; we are not a linear channel so there needs to be some uniqueness and some different shading to what we’ve previously seen on TV.”

For Australian viewers who may have turned to Netflix’s Korean content as a respite from our commercial broadcasters’ obsession with reality TV, the global success of Netflix Korea’s reality dating show Single’s Inferno (a bizarre blend of Bachelor in Paradise and Survivor) has also prompted the streamer to look into more unscripted possibilities.

“We knew [Single’s Inferno] was going to be popular in Korea, but we were very pleasantly surprised it travelled outside of Korea so well. So we do plan to produce more unscripted series,” Kang says.

“Our focus is to introduce a variety of Korean creativity, not just a certain genre or what we’ve already been doing because people have different needs. The variety is what we are going after.”

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