Korean dramas and series were originally produced in house by the television channels themselves, but since the 2000s they have mostly been outsourced to independent production companies. As of 2012, about three quarters of of all Korean dramas were produced this way. Competition is fierce among the independent production companies. In 2012, out of 156 registered firms, only 34 produced dramas that were broadcast. [Source: Wikipedia]

The costs of production are shared by the producing company and the broadcaster, with the broadcasting channel usually covering around 50 percent of the expenses. If top stars and famous scriptwriters are employed, they may cover even more. The rest of the budget has to be covered by the production company, often with assistance from sponsors.

In Korea, often the biggest expense is the appearance fees of top stars who are often necessary to generate interest in a drama and get it made. In some cases, payments to the actors can take up as much as 55-65 percent of the entire budget, compared to is 20–30 percent in Japan, and approximately 10 percent in the U.S., where drama production companies tend to avoid casting famous actors to keep their costs down. Everything else, including salaries of lesser-known actors, extras, and technical staff, location rent and other expenses, have to be covered from the remaining amount. It is not uncommon for production companies to overrun their budgets after already paying the stars and cannot pay other salaries. In 2012, actors held a demonstration in front of the KBS’s headquarters to protests this situation.

Actors are usually paid after the last episode is aired at the end of the month. In series made by smaller production companies for cable channels, there have been cases where the companies went bankrupt and could not pay their actors and crew, while the channel denied all responsibility, claiming all liability was with the bankrupt production firm. Big stars may earn as much as US$100,000 per episode. Bae Yong-joon, the star of Winter Sonata reportedly received US$250,000 per episode for The Legend in 2007.

A typical Korean drama may cost as much as US$250,000 per episode, and historical dramas cost more than that. The Gu Family Book cost US$500,000 per episode. Producer Kim Jong-hak spent as much as US$10 million on Faith, which was considered a commercial flop, resulting in the inability of Kim to pay crew salaries and other costs. Kim, who had produced successful dramas such as “Eyes of Dawn” and “Sandglass”, committed suicide after he was accused of embezzlement.

Making a Korean Drama

Drama Beans, perhaps the best site on Korean Dramas, says: “Miniseries and special production dramas typically begin filming a month or two in advance of their premieres, although there are some that begin filming several more months before that (reasons: special effects, location shoots, production considerations like large-scale battle scenes). I’m excluding daily dramas, long-running serials, and sitcoms from this because those can have different schedules. [Source: Drama Beans, Lore, in K Drama, Korean Drama, October 2, 2013]

“This head start allows dramas to have a few episodes in the can before the episodes hit the air, but the demands of production can catch up mighty quickly after that, and soon shows will be filming episodes the week they air. Two episodes per week means that each episode gets a few days for filming and editing, with not much room for extensive re-shoots and the like. Sleep deprivation is a given; mistakes a distinct possibility.”

“As dramas air and as they achieve a fan base, the schedule becomes tighter and tighter. They respond to fan feedback (and by they I mean the writers, but with the consent of the production team, of course) and change it up. The cast and crew are suddenly in a rush to film the latest script in time to get it on air. After all, each episode needs to see the editors’ room and be readied for production – and some of these episodes are literally filming only a few (or couple- or one in the worst case scenario) days before they air. Again, the business side (or money-money-money) comes into play, as described by Sensei Drama Beans:

“The issue can get complicated if you look at all the various factors involved in bringing drama production to its current state — it’s not just a matter of saying, “Well, just start shooting sooner then.” There’s the fact that increasingly, drama series are being produced by outside production companies and then licensed to the broadcasters, rather than being developed in-house as in earlier days. With broadcasters a step removed from the process, money seems to float to the fore as the big driving force of everything — everyone wants everything done fast, and as cheaply as possible.

Korean Drama Live-Shoot System

Many Korean dramas are shot using the live-shoot system? So exactly what is it. According to Usually, at least two episodes (each of a duration of 60 to 70 minutes) of K-dramas are aired each week. For the majority of K-dramas, before the premiere, only the first few episodes are being filmed and the filming continues as the drama is being aired. The “stock” of episodes quickly runs out so in some extreme cases, filming and editing may even take place on the same day the episode is being aired. For example, actor Kwon Sang-woo complained that he had been shooting the last episode of the drama “King of Ambition” up until 30 minutes before it was aired. So, some people said that the way that K-dramas were filmed was somewhat like a live broadcast TV programme. [Source: October 3, 2016]

“Before filming begins, production companies usually need to secure airing time-slots with the TV networks. Without a confirmed airing time-slot, it may be difficult to secure investment from investors, sponsors and casting (as actors/actresses may not want to accept offers which are not certain). Moreover, if filming takes place without a confirmed airing time-slot, the production companies may need to take the risk of not being able to recover its production costs if its finished drama product is not able to secure airing time. However, the negotiation with the TV networks and the formation of the production team take time, so sometimes filming may take place in less than a month before the drama is being aired.

“The live-shoot system also has benefits to the production companies. It can help tailor the development of the drama to audience’s response to improve viewership ratings. Korean viewers like to give their feedback on the dramas on the relevant message boards as they understand that their input can influence the development of the dramas. In light of the feedback received, the writers may re-work the plots/scripts of the dramas to help hook the viewers. Dramas with high viewership ratings may be given extensions and popular characters can be given more screen time whereas unpopular dramas may receive cuts in episodes and unpopular characters may be written off. Moreover, the live shoot system allows script changes for insertion of PPL into the drama to increase revenue – there may be new requests for PPL coming in with the increasing popularity of the drama as the drama is being aired.

“The live-shoot system has led to harsh working conditions for the production team, including the actors/actresses, due to tight filming schedules, last-minute script changes and scripts being received page-by-page. For example, the actor, Joo-won, said that in his recent hit drama, “Yong-pal”, he might need to continue filming without sleep for six days and get IV shots between scenes to boost his energy. The live-shoot system can easily lead to accidents as well. Due to the time pressure, an episode is edited into six to seven 10-minute segments which are sent off to the TV network for airing, which may lead to broadcasting accidents like the screen going black for 10 minutes in episode 19 of the drama, “Man from the Equator”. Members of the production team, including the actors/actress, may get hurt more easily, especially for action scenes, due to lack of sleep.”

Pre-Produced K-Dramas for the Chinese Market

In the early 2010s, there was an increasing trend for pre-produced K-dramas such as “Descendants of the Sun”, “Uncontrollably Fond”, “Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo”, “Saimdang: Light’s Diary”, which were completed before the premiere. A key reason for this trend is to suit the requirements of the Chinese market, which has recently become one of the key markets for K-dramas. All K-dramas are required to pass the censorship by the Chinese government before they are being aired in China, and this may take two to three months. Therefore, the dramas need to be pre-produced to allow simultaneous airing in China and South Korea. [Source: Korean Culture and Information Service, K-drama: a new TV genre with global appeal, Republic of Korea, 2011]

It is expected that with more time to allow for filming and editing, pre-produced K-dramas can be of higher quality. An added advantage of pre-produced K-dramas is that subtitles and/or dubbing can be prepared beforehand and the K-dramas can be released in different countries nearly at the same time. For example, “Uncontrollably Fond” can be aired on the TV in South Korea, quickly followed by airing in Hong Kong, Mainland China and Taiwan, and then becomes available in the U.S. through the streaming site “DramaFever”.

However, given the astronomical production costs of K-dramas, unless the K-drama is produced by well-known and well-capitalised production companies with cash-rich investors and top casting, it may still be difficult to secure enough investment to start filming before it is being aired and proves to be a hit. Therefore, it is expected that the live-shoot system may still remain the model adopted for the K-dramas.

Problems with the Korean Drama Production

The success of Korean TV dramas like "Jewel in the Palace", “My Love from a Star,” "Boys Over Flower" and"Dream High" have led majestic income increases for A-list actors who play leading roles, top screenwriters and producers but ultimately has hurt almost everyone else in the Korean drama production business — namely supporting actors and film crew — who are the notoriously underpaid and endure long hours and harsh working conditions. A big part of the problem is the production system in smaller independent drama producers who, on a tight budget, are easily exploited by the big broadcasters. Nearly 80 percent of Korean TV dramas are made by independent production companies. [Source: Park Si-soo, Korea Times, June 26, 2013]

In 2013, the Dong-A Ilbo reported: Though Korean dramas are loved worldwide, the production environment is very poor, often making headlines in newspapers as social issues. Protagonists of hit dramas file lawsuits to receive pay. The drama “Equator Man” was produced depending on drama scripts that arrived piece by piece and the drama barely made broadcasting time for each episode. Toward the end of the series, the running time became shorter than it should have been. [Source: Dong-A Ilbo August 1, 2013]

“Han Ye-seul, the protagonist of the drama “Spy Myeong-wol,” did not have to make compensation for delaying the broadcast of one episode of the drama by not appearing for shooting. After Kim Jong-hak, a producer of many globally hit dramas, committed suicide due to financial problems caused by his last drama “The Great Doctor,” no one knows what went wrong with the moderately popular drama. This is because new drama producing companies with a starting capital of less than 100 million won (89,000 U.S. dollars) begin drama productions costing over 5 billion won (4.5 million dollars) without signing a contract. This has caused production companies to go bankrupt no matter how popular their dramas become.

“In fact, these problems in the Korean drama industry were detected back in 2004 when “Winter Sonata” hit the Japanese market marking the beginning of the Korean Wave. The Korean government came up with measures to tackle the problems only after the death of great producer Kim Jong-hak. The government said that making a standard contract would solve problems between broadcasters and production companies, including the underpayment of appearance fee, the practice of almost real time production due to late drama script and revenue distribution. However, the key issue is missed in the government measures.

“The government did not mention the biggest factor that pushes up production cost: salary of actors and writers. Lee Yeong-ae, the heroin of the globally hit drama “Jewel in the Palace,” received 6 million won (5,350 dollars) per episode for the drama 10 years ago, but now her value went up 10 folds. The proportion of superstars’ salaries in a Korean drama production cost is five times bigger than that of America or Japan. Most popular writers used to receive 10 million won (9,000 dollars) per episode in 2000 but now receive five times more. The government should solve this problem in cooperation with the associations of actors and writers. Pushing forward with economic democratization, the government must be capable of handling small matters such as rationalization of actors’ salaries.

B-List Korean Drama Actors Often Not Paid

Park Si-soo wrote in the Korea Times: “The latest event offering a glimpse of the grim reality took place” in 2013 “in Seoul, when a group of actors who worked on the MBC drama "My Sons" stood before journalists to complain about their unpaid salaries. "The drama went off air in March. But there are still many actors who have not yet been fully paid," said Han Young-soo, president of the Korea Broadcasting Actors Union (KBAU) representing nearly 5,000 actors and comedians. "The unpaid salaries are estimated at 703 million (US$607,000)." [Source: Park Si-soo, Korea Times, June 26, 2013]

“Actor Ryu Soo-young who played a leading role in the drama received his payment in advance. But many others who played supporting roles, including actor Kim Yong-gun, and actresses Na Moon-hee and Myung Se-bin, are still waiting for a large portion of their guaranteed payment. This incident took place as the head of To Be Enterprise, an independent producer of the drama, disappeared without paying salaries. His whereabouts are still unaccounted for. Amid the controversy, MBC has committed to pay 90 percent of the overdue payments. "Nearly half of the budget for the drama was spent to cast a couple of actors playing leading roles," said a KBAU official familiar with the case. "My understanding is that in this spending structure he (the boss) found it difficult to pay others so he fled." [KBAU is a

“Actor Ryu echoed the view, saying the incident was largely due to "inflated" payments to big name actors and actresses. "An independent drama producer starts shooting normally on a tight budget given by the broadcaster. A large portion of this is paid to a handful of leading actors," Ryu said in a separate media briefing on the issue. "The producer usually needs extra money to fully compensate others. To that end, the firm sells the drama in various ways, but this is not always successful."

“The KBAU said the latest incident raised the cumulative amount of unpaid wages between 2009 and 2013 to 43 billion won. By broadcaster, MBC takes the biggest portion of 1.78 billion won, followed by KBS with 1.59 billion won and the third largest broadcaster SBS with 920 million won. Following the incident, KBS has mandated independent drama producers to subscribe to an insurance policy covering salaries up to 500 million won as part of efforts to prevent the recurrence of a similar incident. "This is a policy equally applied by MBC and SBS," said Go Young-tak, head of the KBS drama department.

Exploitation of Shooting Crews That Make Korean Dramas

Park Si-soo wrote in the Korea Times: “The film crew is another weak group under the current drama-making system. Most of them, excluding some in decision-making positions, are placed at the bottom of the shooting site hierarchy so they are required to handle all kinds of tough works. They are exposed to higher risks of physical injury, but are paid the least. Nevertheless, they have no legal right to unionize themselves to call for improved working conditions since they are hired on temporary contracts. [Source: Park Si-soo, Korea Times, June 26, 2013]

“The annual income of a crew member is estimated at 6.4 million won (US$5,500) on average as of 2009, according to the KBAU, the latest data available. It showed 74.2 percent of shooting crews work more than 13 hours a day, while only 1.3 percent work eight hours a day. Only 9.2 percent received overtime payment, the data showed. "It's truly reprehensible," said Rep. Park Chang-sik of the ruling Saenuri Party, recollecting his experiences as a drama director at MBC and SBS in the 1990s. "Nearly 80 percent of people at the shooting site are temporary hires. Their salary is horribly low and working conditions, generally speaking, couldn't be worse."

Legislation Needed to Improve Korean Drama Working Conditions

In 2013, the Dong-A Ilbo reported: “The government should also make measures to secure efficacy and transparency of drama production. American drama producers use software to manage overall drama production from schedule to budget. Schedule shows shooting dates of each actor, necessary equipment for each day and set, the length of daily production and statistics of production status. [Source: Dong-A Ilbo August 1, 2013]

“In IT superpower Korea, drama producers manually record schedule and budget. The government may do well make software for drama production management and distribute it. If the government is not willing to do more than the standard contract announced Tuesday, foreign fans of Korean dramas will may include “Korean drama production companies go bankrupt after producing a popular drama” into the commandment of Korean drama.

Park Si-soo wrote in the Korea Times: “Rep. Park Chang-sik of the ruling Saenuri Party cited the "tight budget" as the biggest culprit behind what he described as "cruel" working conditions. "Broadcasters want to make a drama for the least amount of money," Park said. "With a large portion of the budget set to be paid to a handful of main actors, the only way to solve the problem is increasing the budget." [Source: Park Si-soo, Korea Times, June 26, 2013]

“The lawmaker is pushing to introduce a binding form of working contract for film crews, which guarantees wage and welfare that at least meet the legal minimum. "The bill, which is in the making, stipulates a minimum wage, time limits for one-time shooting and basic welfare among others," he said. A public hearing regarding the issue was held last month. He will improve the bill based on suggestions during the event to place it before the National Assembly in the near future. A similar bill was put on the parliamentary table in 2010 by then lawmaker Cho Yoon-sun, who is the incumbent minister of gender equality and family. But it perished with the end of the 18th parliamentary session in May 2012.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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