Korean Dramas: The Breakdown

Friends often ask how it’s possible for me to be watching so many Korean dramas at once.  Well, besides the fact that I watch them instead of sleeping, my addiction is fed by the various ‘time slots’ for dramas.  There are four nationwide TV networks in Korea: 1 educational and 3 general.  The 3 general stations are the ones that carry dramas: KBS (Korean Broadcasting System), MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Company), and SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System).  Recently a slew of cable channels have cropped up (e.g., tvN, Channel A, jTBC, and TV Chosun), but to keep things simple and mainstream, I’ll stick to the 3 main stations for this explanation.

There are generally two types of dramas: daily and twice-weekly.  Daily dramas air Monday through Friday for 30-40 minutes (without commercials).  They currently have two slots: morning and evening.  The daily morning dramas are closer in content to American daytime soap operas (All My Children, General Hospital, etc.) aka lots of makjang (more on that another time), and they are targeted towards housewives who have just sent off their husbands and kids to work and school.

Evening serials are more family-friendly.  In general, dailies revolve around several families (which translates to a large cast) that are connected through love/hate/friendship/work/whatever-they-can-come-up-with, and they run for about 100 episodes (which ends up being ~6 months).  Don’t expect a lot of progress in each episode – you can tune in every few weeks and still be on top of the storyline.  Unless, of course, among the episodes you choose to skip, one reveals all the birth secrets, tortured pasts, and cancerous tumors of the heroes/heroines.  Good luck trying to find that episode.

Now we turn to the ‘real’ shows that people get excited over.  Twice-weekly dramas air Monday-Tuesday, Wednesday-Thursday, or Saturday-Sunday for 60-70 minutes (without commercials) during primetime.  On the weekend there are two time slots, with the earlier one being more family-friendly (or ajumma/ajusshi-friendly) and the later one the usual primetime fare.  These primetime shows vary in series length, but there are general categories: the mini-mini-series, which runs 14-18 episodes; the mini-series, which runs 18-24 episodes; the not-quite-mini-but-not-uber-long-series, which runs 24-36 episodes; the standard-long-series, which runs 36-50 episodes; and the we-decided-to-have-an-extension-to-the-50-episodes-series.

The weekend shows have, in general, always been ‘family’ dramas running for ~50 episodes.  (A prominent example of an exception was Secret Garden, which was neither 50 episodes nor the traditional family drama.)  One slot is typically taken by a sageuk (period pieces, usually about historical figures) and the other by a condensed version of the daily-evening-drama.  Weekday offerings are more variable in terms of length and genre.  Traditional sageuks and ‘commemoratory’ dramas celebrating random anniversaries of the broadcasting stations and other miscellaneous dates, though, do tend to be ~50 episodes.  Everything else is all over the place.

So there you have it, a quick (or not so quick) rundown of the basic time slots and affiliated fare.  If you do the math, that’s 3 shows per day per station on weekdays and 2 shows per day per station on weekends, giving a grand total of 18 different dramas per week or 48 different episodes per week or a minimum of 39 hours per week.  And that doesn’t include sitcoms, talk shows, game shows, music shows, cable channels, and the occasional Friday dramas.  Welcome, dear friends, to Korean television.

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