K-Dramas, Turkish Dizis & The Pandemic Equation
My fascination with the world of Turkish drama is well documented, and growing. A competing and equally compelling entertainment space is the Korean entertainment industry, making global inroads through its Korean Wave ("Hallyu") in music, cinema and serials. It has been interesting to take a look at some of the impact created by these two spaces during the pandemic.
Needless to say, I am late to the K-Drama bandwagon, but am very pleased to have arrived. High production values, script, soundtrack and innovative, original, diverse plots are hallmarks of this fast growing genre which has a loyal following across the globe. Propelled by easily available, subtitled content that proliferated across the globe at a rapid pace, K Dramas and the pandemic helped to grow 2020 Korean cultural content exports to more than USD 10 billion (inclusive of the more popular K Pop music component).
Several recent popular Turkish dramas are adapted from K-drama originals such as Kalp Atisi (2017) from Doctors (2016), Mucize Doktor (2019 – 2021) from Good Doctor (2013), Hayat Sarkisi (2016) from Flames of Desire (2010-2011), the currently running Ask Mantik Intikam from Cunning Single Lady (2014), and many more.
With a similarity in cultural nuances of intertwined strong family values, with some shared properties in language patterns, and solid diplomatic relations rooted in Turkey’s early and heavy support of South Korea during the Korean War, it is no wonder that I gravitate to both forms of storytelling like a moth to a flame. For a lover of stories that portray the human condition, both Korean and Turkish cinema deliver with plot, cinematography and aesthetics that seem like poetry in motion being enacted by relatable actors, with heart touching music that accentuate the experience. The stories are family friendly and have well sketched out characters, a study of which can lead to thought provoking debates about social mores and ethics.
For me, this avenue for intellectual exploration with like-minded individuals across the globe is welcome growth in a life that has become socially isolated during, and since, the COVID pandemic. It makes me feel relevantly connected to the human experience, much more so than tracking global news of war, friction, annihilation, and territorial battles. Whereas I respect the intricacies involved in building, modifying, and monitoring social systems through a form of accountable governance, too many established governments have taken liberties in and outside of their borders that create mayhem in the lives of the common people.
In the most recent debacle in Afghanistan, I cannot contain my sorrow for all the people who only want a country that is stable on economic and social reforms; a basic desire for a government that allows them to build sustainable livelihoods, with access to education and a reliable form of law and justice. What they got instead are two decades worth of occupation by a puppet government and a decrepit economic framework that crumbled, helping to usher in the Taliban’s swift return. The scenes of massive crowds trying to escape the country, mothers handing over children to complete strangers, human bodies falling from the wheel well of departing planes, are fodder for incessant nightmares that makes me question our purpose as the human race. When the real world feeds us such bedtime stories, it is far more comforting to seek stories of love, hope, joy, laughter, triumph, and more in the world of entertainment.
THE VIRTUAL PLAYGROUND
Over the 2020 pandemic, much has been written about both K-Dramas, Turkish Dizis, and how the popularity has soared. Isolated from friends and family, and the human touch, users came to social media in droves, creating virtual spaces of friendship while bonding over the love of good stories. It became a new source of a sense of community and emotional support.
The success of two particular shows that broke many records with its international fandom as people sought escapism during this forced lockdown is worthy of a deeper look. Crash Landing On You (“CLOY”) from South Korea and Sen Cal Kapimi (“SCK”) from Turkey became soul food during this extraordinary time and both posted unprecedented viewership numbers and/or social media engagement.
CRASH LANDING ON YOU (“CLOY”)
CLOY, which aired on Korean channel tvN from December 14, 2019 - February 16, 2020, is the highest rated drama from tvN and officially the second highest rated Korean drama of all time. Helmed by Korean A-list stars Son Ye-Jin and Hyun Bin, it had a simultaneous weekly release on Netflix in all territories except in Japan and a couple of other countries, where it dropped after the 16 episodes series had completed. This weekly release is a departure from Netflix’s usual binge watching strategy, where a series is released in its entirety as a season. As Netflix deepens its investments in Korea (greater than $700M since 2015, with more on the line), the weekly release strategy seems to be primarily reserved for K Dramas as Netflix solidifies its position as the international distributor for many of these shows.
The following for CLOY during its airing broke many records, with nearly half a billion people in China alone tuning in for the airing of the final episode on the streaming platform Weibo. Just as the lockdown hit in March, the binge viewership for the show began to climb and, by the end of March, it was the third most watched show on Netflix. Per FlixPatrol, CLOY ranks number 5 in the category of ‘The most popular movies and TV shows on Netflix by the number of days ranked in TOP 10’, with 506 days on the list (as at September 12, 2021).
After a freak tornado blows her paraglider into the North Korean portion of the demilitarized zone, where Captain Ri Jeong-Hyeok is a commanding officer of the outpost patrol, fashion tycoon Yoon Se-Ri finds herself in an unknown world that she only understands as ‘over there’. During his platoon’s efforts to help her find safe passage back home without reporting her to the State Security Department, the gravitation these two broken characters have towards each other is beautifully done. Shaped by their family tragedies and dysfunction, they quietly and unexpectedly find refuge in each other while both repeatedly puts the other’s safety before their own. They cannot stop their roller coaster of emotions despite family obligations and the impossibility of their union until a promised ‘reunification’ of the two states.
The improbable love story between the chaebol heiress from South Korea and the piano protege turned soldier from a prominent North Korean political family received positive feedback for the portrayal of the North Korean way of life that humanizes local communities in respectful ways. With Kwak Moon-wan, a North Korean defector, as film adviser and part of the writing team, the portrayal of the reclusive country is nuanced, replete with interesting details that provide insight into citizen’s gracious acceptance of their circumstances.
As an international viewer not well versed in the culture of the peninsula, my impression of the region had been sealed with this iconic 2014 picture shared by NASA/ Reuters – an expanse of darkness of North Korea nestled between the brightness of China and South Korea.
CLOY provides an opportunity to break these preconceptions. Through comical delivery of well chosen dialogue, diverse characters and plot choices, in CLOY both the North and South are depicted with a similar sense of moral grayness, and it is against this foundation of real life conflict that our protagonists choose love to guide their way. This scene in the final episode captures a particularly important junction in their relationship, where Jeong-Hyeok willfully crosses the border line just to say a last goodbye to Yoon Se-Ri, with the word “Peace” written in bold letters on the line. The collective desire of millions seems to be captured in these frames.
During one of the attempts to escape when Yoon Se-Ri thinks this is her last goodbye with Jeong-Hyeok, she says, “I can go to Africa or Antarctica but I cannot come here. It’s a shame you live up here” to which Jeong-Hyeok says, “It’s a shame you live down there.” While the two destined soulmates look wistful, it also captures the sadness of the common people who share so much similarity in values, morals and desires and, yet, are separated by political ideology parked on a 2.5 mile wide demilitarized zone that cuts the Korean peninsula almost in half.
As their fates collide again and again, we come to discover that unbeknownst to Yoon Se-Ri and Jeong-Hyeok, the beginning of their love story is years old and that, from the start, both have drawn on the other for healing their burning souls without knowing they were doing so. Refraining from making a judgmental political statement, cinematic choices blur the lines of ideological differences as the strong-willed, optimistic Yoon Se-Ri from the South becomes the light in Captain Ri’s life just as much as his quiet, deliberate, artistic heart from the North becomes the light in hers. While she helps him re-open his heart and find a path back to his first love of piano, he helps her find ways of becoming a more wholesome person who is no longer lonely. Their future remains stamped with the constraints of the current political climate within which they choose to define their happiness.
In a fairly tight narrative over 16 episodes, with each spanning between 70 to 112 minutes, the picturesque cinematography that goes from the small village in North Korea (locations in S Korean and Mongolia) to the splendor of Seoul to the natural grandeur of Switzerland, CLOY is a beautiful exploration of love, missed chances, the decisions we choose to make when faced with a fork in the road and the repercussions of those choices. The latter half of the series waffles with side characters and their arcs, but the backbone of the main love story remains strong from beginning till end.
CLOY remains popular as more viewers like myself find and fall in love with the story. The loyal and long-term fans of the lead pair’s excellent on-screen chemistry were rewarded earlier in the year when Hyun Bin’s agent confirmed that the actors are in a real-life relationship.
SEN CAL KAPIMI
Premiering on July 8, 2020, Sen Cal Kapimi (“SCK”) joined the lineup of the summer RomComs from Turkey, which typically provide easy entertainment over the summer before the heavier dramas come back in the fall, either with a new season or channels introduce new shows. Helmed by Instagram superstar Hande Ercel and Kerem Bursin, Best Actor award winner from 2017 Seoul International Drama Awards, the show rose to high local ratings quickly and established itself as the best summer show of 2020. With unprecedented popularity with the international fandom, best captured in the high audience engagement on twitter, the summer show was extended with final conclusion coming at episode 52 on September 8, 2021, closing out an excess of 6,500 hours of television dedicated to one show (each episode is ~140 minutes). On the airing of its last episode, the twitter fandom posted a world record 8.3M+ tweets with the episode hashtag #sonkezsencalkapimi, the most ever for a single TV episode. The prior record of 7.8M was held by Episode 3 from Season 8 of Game of Thrones, aired on April 28, 2019.
Essaying the love story between rich but repressed young man Serkan Bolat and the financially challenged but feisty Eda Yildiz, SCK follows some of the most cliched tropes in romance stories. Starting with the conflict of Eda hating Serkan in absentia as she blames him for the loss of her scholarship that halts her academic career, their first memorable meeting soon takes a turn towards a fake engagement contract so that Serkan can play mind games with his ex-girlfriend Selin, to keep her from marrying and bringing an arch nemesis into the family holding business run by Serkan and Selin’s families. Comedy, misunderstandings ensue as Eda proves to be much more than Serkan was prepared for, including having a place in dark family secrets that tie the fates of the Bolat/Yildiz families and heritage in complicated ways. She teaches him the meaning of love and remains a steadfast partner throughout his tumultuous journey of finding himself and learning to fight for their love. After navigating many twists and turns in their relationship, while dodging the grubby hands of unwelcome characters, Serkan and Eda finally seal their love, married with children.
The first 12 episodes that capture the journey of these two characters falling in love are beautifully done. For those of you who followed my posts on the show know my detailed thoughts on why I felt the show lost its direction and soul since then; in summary, the show went on a circuitous cycle of breakups, makeups, mashups, belly ups, and everything in between, based on recycling of some of the same relationship dynamics. It didn’t help that the story was put together by a revolving door of writing teams, losing character integrity along the way.
I will grant though that the budget was probably far less than the $20M budget for CLOY, and the SCK production had the added challenge of working during the pandemic.
Despite the depleted story and characters, the social media savvy and interactive cast became hugely popular with the fan base, allowing social media trends to continue irrespective of the quality of the episodes, plot consistency or character growth. Hande and Kerem’s real life romance, announced weeks before the start of Season 2, fueled the fan frenzy.
The fandom, having figured out the science behind getting twitter trends going and growing, became consistently sharper about executing on expanding these twitter trends, going from strength to strength, and eventually ending with the latest standing world record. You can read here for a chronicle of the experience from when the fandom hit more than a million tweets for the first time for Episode 28, setting a record in Turkish TV history.
THE PANDEMIC EQUATION
Both K-Dramas and Turkish dizis are known for their ‘live filming’ schedules. Which means that a series gets started with 2-4 completed episodes and the rest are filmed and morphed throughout the season, partly based on audience reaction, with episodes that sometimes complete filming hours before airing. Both industries get deep audience engagement on social media platforms, supported by a loyal fan base who are predominantly women between the ages of 16 – 65. There are many large fan accounts in both fandoms, but the growth of individual accounts has been exponential during the pandemic, welcoming an older crowd into the fold as well. Twitter seems the most active social media platform for conversations regarding the shows, especially for Turkish dizis, with engagement typically higher for shows that are airing on a schedule versus ones that are binge-watched.
People ensconced at home during the lockdown sought TV entertainment as a form of escapism and streaming subscriptions grew fast. Virtual spaces, fan communities, conversations and engagement were high, creating a locked and loyal fan base for both the shows in question. This created incredible opportunity for the production houses to capitalize on this vested audience and solidify branding possibilities for the industry, their show, cast, production capabilities, product placements and more.
This is a unique feature of the pandemic equation, perhaps unlikely to repeat itself in a similar fashion or scale again. So, how did the two shows fare with the opportunities they had at hand? What worked and what didn’t?
One of the few common points for both CLOY and SCK is that both the lead pairs are now in real life relationships. Is this part of the pandemic equation as well? Who knows. Just as viewers created human bonds in creative ways through the virtual world, the celebrities living through the idiosyncrasies and the fall outs of the hugely popular shows may have also learned to bond differently with their costars.
The next section explores other dimensions of similarities or divergence.
THE STRENGTH OF THE STORY RULES
The start of SCK coincided with when Turkey went into lockdown as well. The show’s early success, easy availability on the show’s YouTube channel with decent captions in multiple languages, the on-screen chemistry between Hande and Kerem, combined with the human need to remain connected, catapulted a plethora of fan edits and discussions available across social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, tumblr, twitter, among others. This grew the social media footprint and international viewership for the show rapidly.
The successful twitter trend for Episode 28 (mentioned earlier) coincided with when the show took a sharp turn for the worse with its plotline that created ill-explained distance between the lead pair. Even though interest in the story line waned, the fandom understood its power on the social media platform and the twitter metrics significantly diverged from having a correlation with the quality of the storytelling.
Girls and women, who are natural community builders, felt like they are part of a family that doesn’t give up when the going gets tough. Despite the gripe about the story and out of love for the cast, they still congregated on social media to support the show. The show ratings fell but the social media chatter did not. Bonds created during a difficult time in history supersedes logic, and good or bad comments all got their hashtags, keeping SCK trending throughout its run.
In contrast, CLOY provides a different picture. The viewership numbers have been amazing during airing and beyond, but the social media metrics have not been as impressive as SCK. It has been a more organic and sustained growth in the fandom, within additional social media platforms such as Reddit as well. The show continues to spread its wings across new geographies as more people discover the show on Netflix, giving it a place in the top 10 Netflix shows for 506 consecutive days. There continue to be recent articles written on the show in reputable magazines and publications. With 200 million subscribers, which saw a surge in 2020, the global platform provided by Netflix is immense. The introduction of watch parties also helped to build mini fan communities.
In short, the international following for CLOY has been phenomenal, including in Japan where the show released late with some trepidation due to Japan’s role in the division of the Korean peninsula (Japan occupied Korean 1910 – 1945 and at the end of World War II, the region was placed under an international trusteeship that eventually led to the divided region). To be able to erase prejudices through entertainment is one of the greatest powers of the media, and CLOY delivered on this handsomely.
And herein lies a major differentiator between CLOY and SCK. CLOY is a beautiful love story set against the tapestry of a social commentary around the desire of unification of a divided region. The good and bad in people is symbolic of characteristics that help or impede progress in such a longed for process. The story is not a repeat cycle of circular references of character flaws that hamper growth in the love story.
SCK is very myopic in comparison and the breadth of ideas explored are limited. Even though far more sexually charged in its narrative, to take such a restrictive set of ideas and extending the story for 52 weeks is a disservice to everyone involved, particularly during the pandemic when the production house had such an opportunity to consolidate their fan base and create a trusting relationship with that fan base. If the focus had been on a more consistent, wholesome story, it could have led to higher viewership and support of SCK in the short term, as well as a repeat enthusiastic audience for future projects from the team. Instead, several of my peers, including those who supported the twitter trends, have vowed never to invest as heavily into a Turkish TV show again or not be “SCK’d” again.
On the other hand, the appetite for k-dramas seems to be increasing, helped by success stories like CLOY and mindful strategies by the Korean broadcasters in how they are making their content available in new territories.
In summary, based on this specific comparative case study between two of the most popular shows out of two of the fastest growing TV entertainment industries, the outcome seems a long-term gain for one industry and a loss for the other. With its sensitive treatment of the subject matter and its audience through contained storytelling within 16 - 24 episodes, K-dramas seem well poised for longer term sustainable growth, with many new, influential, global fans of the genre. In contrast, the Turkish dizi space, which has had promising growth since the mid-nineties, might find a shift in audience engagement due to the negative perceptions created with these long, complicated stories coupled with untrustworthy promotional tactics.
LESSONS OF THE ERA
Throughout the grim months of the pandemic, when our futures became uncertain almost overnight, the certainty of hope, inclusiveness and love bred a loyal following for CLOY and SCK. Though SCK started at the height of the lockdown, CLOY’s success started in the pre-pandemic era but managed to continue and grow throughout the isolation. This kind of massive and unfiltered engagement may never be replicated in a similar fashion or it may have become the precursor to a new template for how the audience will consume entertainment, what becomes popular and how that popularity is sustained. Time will tell.
From studying the heat maps of discussions and topics of debates across similar shows, stories that highlight the universal truth of love transcending all borders of language, race, religion, social differences and/or military dominance, command a loyalty among fans not easy to reproduce. Both CLOY and SCK started with a similar promise of an epic love story that triumphs against odds, but whereas one story (CLOY) will remain for the ages as a balm during the times of COVID, the other (SCK) may remain as a hallmark of irrational exuberance during a time of extenuating circumstances. Contained storytelling has no substitute and now that I have had a look at both offerings, coupled with insight into the Netflix strategy for both markets, it seems clear that Turkish dizis have a lot of structural remodeling to do if they wish to sustain the current level of engagement and leadership in international sales. K-Dramas are rightfully catching up in its reach and depth of portfolio.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to review the Turkish movie Ayla The Daugther of War (2017), after an interview with the director Can Ulkay who makes his feature film debut with this war epic. It narrates a dramatized version of the real-life tale of Turkish Sergeant Suleyman Dilbirligi and how he rescues an orphaned girl while he is a young soldier sent to South Korea in 1950. Adopted by Suleyman and embraced into the life of the soldiers in the barracks, five year old Ayla becomes a symbol of how love needs no language or borders. Painfully separated at the end of his commission, the movie concludes on the pair’s real-life reunion sixty years later, thanks to the work of Korean television station MBC.
At the time of the interview, I had not appreciated the bond the two cultures share, accentuated by a fast growing global following for stories from their lands. How serendipitous that the project combines both cultures in such beautiful ways.
Finding myself at the junction of these two cultures through the world of entertainment is enlightening. So much of our accumulated experiences give rise to this resonance with global stories, where borders melt away as we commiserate with the pain of lost love or the joy of discovering ourselves. As the world has been brought closer by streaming services like Netflix, which remains a leader in the SVOD market, I am grateful to have experienced an explosion of human connections made through this world of entertainment. To be able to impart some observations that may help sharpen the offerings from these two industries is a mere bonus. I eagerly await better and stronger stories from both.
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