Devotees of U.S. soap operas are increasingly voting with their feet, watching them not only on cable or satellite TV channels but engaging in such illegal activities like posting episodes of popular dramas with Korean subtitles online just a few hours after they are broadcast in the U.S. Pundits say as their number explodes, the viewer ratings of Korean dramas are shrinking. More than 1.5 million such fans are estimated to be out there online, more than three times the number three years ago. The cable channel OCN posted two or three times higher viewer ratings than usual on its “CSI Days” in June and October, when it aired seasons of the U.S. crime drama CSI 24 hours.
Why do people love U.S. soaps so much? It is mainly because they offer something different from the familiar fare of domestically produced dramas. The Chosun Ilbo asked translators of subtitles of U.S. dramas to compare shows produced in the two countries.
What you can find only in U.S. [T.V. Shows]
Professions: Medical dramas in Korea are only about love between doctors and nurses, but that is not the case in the U.S. No matter what kind of professions they deal with, U.S. dramas depict their professional world realistically. Nip/Tuck, which features two plastic surgeons, as well as CSI, Grey’s Anatomy and ER take us by surprise with their detailed and realistic description of the professions they feature. By contrast, most dramas except historical and period dramas in Korea are centered around romance.
Suspense: Korean dramas are filled with secrets, but viewers either know or easily guess what they are. Watch just the first few episodes and you know who will end up with whom and who will kick the bucket. In American soaps, the twists and turns are genuinely surprising in many episodes and viewers can have fun discussing the riddles. Cases in point are Prison Break and Lost. That is why is many cannot tear themselves away once they start watching.
Seasons: U.S. dramas are made based on thorough preparation by producers right from the planning stage, so they can be shot and shown in several “seasons.” But in Korea, there’s not a big enough pool of actors and they act both in movies and dramas simultaneously, making it nearly impossible for dramas to last several seasons. In the U.S. stars usually have a home either in TV or the movies. If the Korean soap opera Damo (Female Detective) were produced in the U.S., it would have run over five seasons.
Episodes: U.S. dramas are centered around events but Korean dramas around relationships. That is why U.S. dramas have titles for each episode, which mostly tells a complete story for 60 minutes. In Korea, the relationships among characters unfold at a leisurely pace throughout the whole drama.
What only [Korean dramas] offer
Family: Korean dramas put much emphasis on relationships, especially on blood relationships. There are often three generations living under one roof in Korean dramas; that is rare in U.S. soaps. The main reason is cultural differences, but also because U.S. dramas focus more on what characters do rather how they live.
Writers: U.S. soap writers are not as powerful as their Korean counterparts. Usually, one drama season is produced by 10-20 writers together, and you can feel the difference in the language characters use; such differences come up even in a single season. For example, if you hear newly-coined words, it is because young writers wrote the lines. But emotional language has become a unique characteristic of Korean dramas, hard to find in U.S. dramas that focus on particular events. In many cases, U.S. shows even have different directors who attempt to put their stamp on the episode, and sometimes famous movie directors such as Quentin Tarantino in CSI and Tobe Hooper in Taken have a hand in producing them.
Stars: U.S. dramas do not cast famous stars when they start. The mega-hit sitcom Friends ran into trouble when the stars it made tried to command more money after its mid-point. But when it was first aired, all except Lisa Kudrow, who previously starred in one or two B-movies, were still unknown. Kim Yoon-jin who rose to stardom in Lost, now commands some W30 billion (US$1=W930) per season or W1.2 billion per episode but was paid less than W100 million per episode in the first season. By contrast, Korean soaps tend to depend on the power of celebrities.
Incurable Disease: U.S. dramas deal with incurable diseases but only as incidental in such medical dramas as House and Grey’s Anatomy. In Korean dramas, however, incurable diseases like cancer and leukemia and memory loss play a critical role in moving the drama along. U.S. dramas rely more on clockwork plots than affliction.
doozy: I agree with the above points, especially the part about professions and the all-too-familiar incurable disease storylines.