Over the past couple of weeks Korean exporters have shown their wares at two sales presentations which demonstrated Korea’s aspirations to export both the ultimate soft power and the ultimate of hard power products. LKL was present at both events, pretending to have a very fat cheque book. At one, I was a TV executive looking to fill out my satellite and terrestrial TV schedules with some exotic bought-in content; at another I posed as a defence procurement executive looking to replace my air force’s aging fleet of training aircraft. So how much imaginary money did I spend? First, the TV fair.
TV Contents Showcase
At the TV Contents showcase, I was presented with back-to-back trailers for programmes that were on offer from various Korean TV Channels. Then there was lunch and one-on-one meetings with the TV stations. If I hadn’t gone back to Canary Wharf to attend to my day job, what would I have said to KBS, MBC and the rest of them?
First, the documentaries. These were a no-brainer. They looked like good quality products. And all I had to do was edit out the Korean voiceover, commission someone like John Craven or Tony Robinson to do an English voiceover, and I’d filled several hours of schedule for my LKL-Factual channels. I’d have to commission my graphics people to add an “S” to “Math and the Rise of Civilisation” (EBS, 50mins x 5 episodes), but this looked like a very good and serious attempt to popularise maths, as a parallel to the semi-comic “School of Hard Sums” currently screening on LKL-Banter. The History of Noodles would fit somewhere into the schedule – 4 x 1 hour episodes looked like the sort of thing that could bear a few re-runs as well and had the advantage of filling out schedules on LKL-Food as well as LKL-Documentary. You don’t worry too much about content for those channels. They’re for watching when there’s nothing on the terrestrial channels.
Next, animation. Another easy win. My favourite was I-Kooo (EBS, 10mins x 52 episodes) – about an incompetent alien landing on Planet Earth needing to be told how things worked down here. 10 minute episodes, aimed at young children. It looked very entertaining and informative. I don’t think the audience would worry about our alien saying his name every time he did something stupid. (Actually, he was saying “Aigoo”. Presumably that’s how he got his name). I bought the whole series for LKL-KIDS. Perfect family viewing which could also fill the “Magic Roundabout” slot on my main terrestrial channel, LKL1, before the early evening news.
Then it all got very difficult. Light entertainment. First, Comedy Big League (CJ E&M), a comedy contest with incomprehensible audience voting rules – a variant of the Korean show I am a Singer. Clearly, I couldn’t buy Korean comedy for my schedules, and I was doubtful about whether even the format would work. It would have to be senior comedians aiming to inject some new life their career. But would UK audiences want to subject Ronnie Corbett to the indignity of a popularity contest against Tommy Cooper and Bruce Forsyth? I couldn’t see it, and nor would their agents. We like our stand-up and our panel shows too much. So I passed on that one.
Next, Gourmet Road (CU Media, 60mins): celebrities try unusual food, making silly faces as they do so. Another one where I’d only think of buying the format, not the programme. But not for too long. This looked far too lowbrow for any of my channels, even my most down-market ones. What celebs would I choose? Ant and Dec plus Davina McCall for the middle-aged lowbrow? Peaches Geldof for the teens? Sorry, but no. I’ll leave that to Murdoch’s channels.
Now, the dramas. I’d heard a lot about these. I know a lot of them are very popular in Korea, throughout Asia and even the Middle East. I’d heard from my opposite number at BBC4 that a few years ago someone had tried to persuade him to buy Jewel in the Palace – he hadn’t been convinced.
The trailers looked good. Glossy, well produced, packed with action, drama and all-round entertainment. Dream High 2 (KBS, 70mins x 16 episodes) reminded me of an American high-school teen drama series, though I couldn’t remember the name. There were plenty of costume dramas: where the UK has the Jane Austen Dynasty, Korea has the Joseon: Slave Hunters (KBS, 70 mins x 24 episodes); Moon Embracing the Sun (MBC, 70 mins x 20 episodes).
Or I could go back further in time to Warrior K (MBC), a sword and sandals drama set in the Koryo Dynasty. And then I saw much they were asking me to commit to. 50 episodes of 70 minutes each. No way could I persuade my Director General that this was a risk worth taking. My highbrow channel LKL4 has only just persuaded its viewers to accept subtitled European detective dramas and political thrillers. Many of these are series with a self contained story in each episode. And they’re never more than six episodes long. Six. I’d just, but only just, managed to screen a Danish crime serial, boosting sales of woolly jumpers while I was at it. But that was exceptional, a multi-award-winning thing which deserved to do well and was so good the Americans decided to remake it. But an interminable series of 50 episodes? The plot must move so slowly as to be totally snoozeworthy, or alternatively move so quickly that if you missed an episode you’d be completely lost.
At 70 minutes, I’d need to pad that out with adverts to fill a 90 minute slot in my schedules. 90 minutes, 50 episodes, that’s 75 hours: I’m asking my prospective audience to earmark three solid days plus three hours of their lives to watch this. And what advertiser is going to want to pitch their product to this unknown audience? No way. I could maybe flog a never-ending American spy drama starring a cast of second-tier American actors and a token Brit on this basis, but not something with subtitles.
Moon Embracing the Sun sounded good (MBC, 70 mins x 20 episodes), plus as a Korean film follower there was a couple of other series which caught my eye. My heart very much said yes, but my head was saying no. I liked the concept of IRIS (KBS, 70 mins x 20 episodes), and of its glossy spin-off Athena (SBS, 70 mins x 20 episodes) but … 20 episodes? Lee Byung-hun, Kim Tae-hee, Jung Woo-sung, Su-ae, all A-list actor / celebrities which, yes, I myself know and love but, speaking honestly, well, most westerners wouldn’t be able to name the actor who plays Storm Shadow in GI Joe, would they? It was the highlight of my year when I was photographed with him a couple of years ago, but to people who only know of him via GI Joe he’s just that fit Asian guy with the nice set of teeth. Celebrity-driven dramas will appeal to existing fans, but to break into a market where you’re not known is another proposition entirely when you’ve got to be subtitled.
Similarly, the fish-out-of-water dramas about time travelling Joseon dynasty princes (Roof Top Prince (SBS, 70 mins x 20 episodes) and Queen & I (CJ E&M, 50 mins x 16 episodes)) would appeal only to an audience already familiar with Korean culture – and the supposed armies of European K-pop fans are only just dipping their toes in the water here. Maybe if the prince was a member of Big Bang? But would fans with a different bias want to watch? What if the Elves will only watch something starring Leeteuk? Sorry, but I’ll probably have to leave these dramas to the Korean satellite broadcasters who reach audiences in Europe.
A couple of wildcards caught my interest though. Blood Thirsty Prosecutor (CJ E&M, 60 mins x 12 episodes). Here’s the pitch:
The story begins on the day Taeyeon, a young ambitious prosecutor gets bitten by a stranger. The upside of this accident is that Taeyeon inherits an enormous fortune from an unknown source related to this accident, but the downside is that he is no longer a human being. Taeyeon, now dead but living as a vampire, refuses to drink blood of living humans, but instead chooses to feed off of blood from corpse. In the course of this not-nessasarily-pleasant act, he discovers his psychometric ability to visualize the last moment of the deads, which he uses to solves mystery murder cases and fight criminals. But why was Taeyeon chosen to be a vampire? Is he the only one? and where is the hidden truth? Taeyeon needs to find out, so he begins his bloody journey.
This could appeal to the teen vampire audience, as well as the standard Saturday evening crime / thriller audience. Throw in some impossibly glamorous Korean actresses for the older male audience, make sure that each episode solved a crime, and this might just work. I’ll buy five episodes as a trial, and then maybe the rest if they get decent ratings so that die-hard fans can explore the developing character. Not sure which channel I’ll put it on. LKL3 would reach the teenagers but miss the grown-ups, while LKL4 would miss the teenagers. Could I risk LKL2? Not sure. Maybe I’ll pass it on to Channel 4.
Killer Girl K (CJ E&M, 90 mins x 3 episodes)? Four and a half hours of Nikita-style thrills and action? Yup, count me in for that, for LKL-LADS-tv. Just make sure the body count is high, the stunts are good and plenty of leg is showing. Only three episodes though? I might need to persuade you to make some more. And make sure that K has a cute and equally murderous big sister for the second series. Sold.
Coming soon – the defence industry showcase.