Korean Variety Shows Go Global
Pasha Daeeui Park
Reporter, Maeil Business News Korea
Global fans of Korean culture are turning towards variety shows made in Korea. Having become fairly familiar with Korean content like K-pop, K-dramas, and films, international viewers are now eager to dive deeper into the daily lives of Koreans through variety shows. Often featuring Hallyu stars, Korean food (hansik), and numerous other cultural elements, such programs serve as unofficial ambassadors of Korean culture. Expectations are high for Korean variety shows to provide a new perspective from which Hallyu fans can enjoy Korean media.
From last February, Jinny's Kitchen, also known as Seojin's, ran on tvN for four months; it was simultaneously released worldwide via Amazon Prime Video, becoming the first Korean entertainment show to do so. Even before its release, the program had attracted global attention as its cast included popular Korean celebrities, including Parasite stars Park Seo-joon and Choi Woo-sik, actor Lee Seo-jin, and BTS member V. Many fans enjoyed watching the stars cook and serve Korean dishes and street food like ramyeon, Korean-style instant noodles, and tteokbokki, a spicy stir-fried rice cake dish, in a small town in Mexico. Jinny's Kitchen received high viewership rankings in the eight countries where it was shown.
Season 2 of Game of Blood, a survival show offered until last June on Korean streaming platform wavve, was released at the same time in over 30 countries in the Americas through KOCOWA (Korean Content Wave), a subsidiary of wavve Americas. Spotlighting the psychological warfare that occurred as 14 participants competed for the prize money of KRW 300 million (approximately USD 231,522), the show’s second season was acclaimed for essentially providing a live version of the sensational show Squid Game.
The international popularity of Korean variety shows is confirmed not only by viewership rankings but also through other indicators. The 2023 Overseas Hallyu Survey, released by the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST) and the Korean Foundation for International Cultural Exchange (KOFICE), revealed that variety shows were international viewers’ favorite among Korean-produced media, with 76.5 percent of participants choosing such programs as most likeable. K-dramas came in a close second with 76.3 percent, followed by movies (75.6 percent) and music (74.2 percent).
This achievement seems rather unexpected as Korean variety shows used to be overshadowed by K-pop, K-dramas, and Korean films that have attracted global attention with their qualitative growth. Many believed that the globalization of variety shows would be more challenging because of structural limitations stemming from language and cultural barriers. Knowing that people of different countries and cultures enjoy different types of entertainment, Korean producers have long racked their brains over the export of variety shows. Such problems were successfully overcome by producing and exporting shows that use familiar subjects such as food and travel, thus appealing to international viewers’ desire to indirectly experience Korean culture.
As Korean variety shows display increasing promise on the global stage, online streaming providers that have previously been quite reluctant to produce such programs are now vigorously investing in the sector. Netflix has already confirmed the production of eight Korean variety shows and TVING will release at least nine this year.
Korean variety shows’ remarkable performance in countries outside of Korea is confirmed by the growing export of copyrights and expanding opportunities for the sale of show formats. The export of copyrights and show formats is deemed positive for the regional expandability of Korean variety shows; not only does it have more added value than the simple sale of broadcasting rights, it also makes such programs easily accessible to countries where Hallyu has yet to make inroads. According to an MCST survey of the Korean entertainment industry, the amount earned from exporting TV show formats increased from USD 8.84 million in 2017 to USD 128.8 billion in 2020. Back in 2016, when the Chinese government toughened regulations on Hallyu and suspended the import of Korean programs, the Korean entertainment industry worried that this would negatively influence the export of show formats. Nevertheless, dependency on the Chinese market shrank as the international sale of formats continued to grow steadily as Hallyu spread to North America and Europe.
The TVING original Exchange has been released in Japan under the title Love Transit. Meanwhile, after four seasons of the immensely popular game show The Genius was aired in the Netherlands in October 2022, the show’s format was also exported to British television network ITV a year later.
The export of formats is meaningful because, compared to the sales of finished productions, it offers increased opportunities for expansion in the importing countries. Moreover, through close cooperation with local production teams, Korean producers gain experience planning, producing, and programming cultural content in countries outside Korea. Once a country decides to import a Korean program, a sort of domino effect may follow as the decision may encourage the importer’s neighboring countries to take interest in Korean programs too.
Interest in Korean variety show formats is also seeing recent growth in countries where the demand for Korean cultural products has been relatively low due to religious and cultural differences or the language barrier. After enjoying success in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, the UK, and the US, the show I Can See Your Voice, in which judges attempt to guess people’s singing ability from appearance alone, made headlines after being shown in Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Estonia—countries that are overall less familiar with Korean media.
Please note: This article has been authored by a specialist outside the Korea Foundation. The views expressed here may not reflect the KF’s official position.