Slowly but steadfastly over a period of years, Netflix rose to become the symbol of the accessible K-Drama. The streaming giant’s immense selection of Korean Drama titles offers international fans, as well as a rapidly-growing number of South Korean subscribers, the easiest way to watch the most popular Korean series on the market. Other platforms such as Disney+ and Apple TV+ leaped onto the profit bandwagon by financing their own original K-Dramas (see Snowdrop and Pachinko, respectively), but there are key reasons why Netflix retains their edge in the quantity and quality. And despite controversial price hikes, subscription tiers, and crackdowns on password sharing, there’s little to indicate Netflix will lose this advantage.
Why is Netflix Able to Offer So Many K-Dramas?
Although it wasn’t a streaming wasteland for Asian drama fans prior to Netflix’s acquisitions, it wasn’t exactly convenient. Nor was drawing there a practical business model for attracting more worldwide attention to Korean content. The now extinct DramaFever, a platform owned by Warner Bros., was designed for existing fans of foreign language dramas. Unlike Netflix or a similar equivalent, which boasts domestic media while simultaneously providing access to international television, if the latter wasn’t already your interest wheelhouse, there wasn’t much draw to joining DramaFever. Viki Rakuten operates on the same principle, offering platform-exclusive content but not providing the buffet-style of options that Netflix streamlined.
The company began toying with Korean entertainment around 2016 and gained licensing rights through local networks instead of larger production companies, which refused Netflix’s overtures at the time. Kingdom, the first K-Drama funded by and released exclusively on Netflix, debuted in January 2019. A zombie horror series based in the historical Joseon era of Korea, it was well received critically and commercially, earning a second series in 2020, an extended episode, and a planned 2023 special. Kingdom debuted months before Love Alarm, the second Netflix original, which was successful enough to secure a second season and remained popular into 2021, ranking as the sixth most watched K-Drama on Netflix that year (behind Squid Game, Hellbound, My Name, Vincenzo, and Sweet Home — four of which carry the mark of the Netflix original).
The Korean Company Studio Dragon Played a Big Role
That same year, Netflix announced a three-year partnership with Korea’s largest entertainment company, CJ ENM, and the company’s subsidiary, Studio Dragon. The deal allows Netflix to host some of the studio’s back catalog and guarantees them streaming rights to currently airing and upcoming titles. Combined, those dramas constitute the bulk of Netflix’s Korean selection; if you’ve ever watched a Netflix K-Drama, chances are the Studio Dragon logo preceded the credits. Their name is synonymous with some of the largest domestic and international hits of the last six years: Crash Landing on You, Sweet Home, The King: Eternal Monarch, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, Goblin: The Lonely and Great God, Mr. Sunshine, Hotel del Luna, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, and Vincenzo. They also produced some of the biggest hits of 2022, like Business Proposal, Twenty Five Twenty One, Our Blues, Little Women, Extraordinary Attorney Woo, and Alchemy of Souls.
Describing themselves as “Korea’s Leading Scripted TV Studio,” Studio Dragon and their own numerous subsidiaries operate based off a studio model that allows them to supervise their creations from top to bottom. That includes utilizing and supporting local Korean production companies rather than outsourcing, managing actors, and retaining ongoing partnerships with top tier talent, such as industry legend Kim Eun-sook (writer of the recent Netflix/Studio Dragon co-production The Glory). As of 2017, Studio Dragon claimed to produce 20-25% of all Korean dramas; looking at the company’s current dominance over the K-Drama market, said numbers must have monumentally increased.
Such saturation could be a monopoly in lesser hands, but to outsiders, at least, Studio Dragon has enough diversity of creators, and enough resources to put behind them, to preserve a large amount of creative diversification within the industry. True to their tagline “universal emotions, original stories,” The Glory is far from Alchemy of Souls, which is likewise far from Extraordinary Attorney Woo, Netflix’s most successful K-Drama of 2022.
The Korean Drama’s Continued Success
And streaming audiences continue to respond. As a juggernaut phenomenon, Squid Game remains the most watched out of any original or acquired Netflix content (audiences spent over 2.2 billion hours watching — that’s billion with a b), but Woo earned over 662 million global watch hours as of December 2022 and hit the Netflix Top 10 in over 50 countries. Such powerhouse engagement made it the platform’s second-best Korean success story as well as the eighth most successful K-Drama of all time on domestic cable. Trailing behind is the Netflix-created All of Us Are Dead with 659 million hours watched, while other 2022 debuts like Alchemy of Souls, The Glory, Business Proposal, Little Women, Twenty Five Twenty One, Narco-Saints, and Under the Queen’s Umbrella all averaged between 100 and 300 million watch hours.
When it comes to dissecting why Korean content continues to resonate so strongly, culture critic Kim Heon-sik traced its appeal directly back to the cultural themes within Korea’s work. “We can do what Hollywood cannot,” he says. “They cannot tinker with emotions or empathy. Their competitiveness lies in scale, visual effects, and meticulously planned narrative. Korean content, on the other hand […] it’s about the humanism within that captured people’s attention.” The triple billions — again, with a b — Netflix invested in Korean content certainly paid off in the long run.