Serialized stories and the viewer voice
The Korean drama industry, despite being very much a modern entertainment behemoth, has a lot in common with an old way of telling and delivering stories: through installments. Back in Victorian England, authors were publishing now-classic novels like Great Expectations through monthly or weekly segments in periodicals.
While Victorian novels and K-dramas are worlds apart and completely different mediums, there are some very interesting parallels between the two. The first parallel is how they work by telling stories in pieces, and the second is how they excite interaction with their audiences.
Stories that were published in monthly or weekly installments were known as serials. This method of publishing novels became quite popular in 19th century England, where rather than publish a novel as a final and finished product, authors found a lot of success publishing their stories in installments. There are a whole host of reasons why this worked, from the technical to the economical, but how does it relate to K-dramas?
While serialized novels have fallen out of vogue, in a sense, television has taken the place of this sort of storytelling and K-dramas are one of the best incarnations. While much television programming works on stand-alone episodes, K-dramas are built on the idea of the continuing story. Characters are introduced, plots are set in motion, and hold onto your hat! The next eight to ten weeks of your life will be very much like the avid readers of Victorian England, anxiously awaiting the latest copy of their magazine to hit the presses (literally).
Having a story delivered to you as it’s being created offers a certain kind of thrill. Rather than have an entire novel in your lap, the plot unfolds over weeks at a time; it sets up such an interesting relationship between the story and the viewer/reader. As much as I avoid live K-drama watches and prefer marathoning through stories that have been fully aired and vouched for, there’s something about being involved with a drama “live” as it airs in Korea that adds an extra dimension to the experience.
When you’re engaged with a story that’s being created on the go, it makes you feel like an active participant. It also makes the story come to life even more than if you were experiencing a story on your own timeframe. Think of that week-long stretch that lays in front of you after you’ve caught up on episodes and have to wait for next week’s installment: the story is alive all that time, suspended in your thoughts. In other words, you might give up the ability to control the pace at which you will digest the story, but what you get in return is the pleasure of experiencing a living and breathing story.
Being part of the audience of a live story changes how you relate to it, and it also changes how you relate to other readers/viewers. I would argue it builds even greater camaraderie and community. And the proof is in the pudding: all week long Beanies comment and interact, sharing thoughts, insights, questions, and more, as they wait for the story to continue.
Surely a similar dynamic was going on during the popularity of serialized novels in 19th century England, since, as we’ll see, public chatter and reactions to each installment wound up having a huge effect on how the stories concluded.
But first, there’s a third relationship created by a story that’s being told on the go, and that’s the relationship between the audience and the creator. This is where it gets really interesting. In dramaland, whether you see the creator of the story as the screenwriter, the actors, the production team, the network, or a collection of all of these — each player is, to some extent, affected by the reaction of the audience.
In Victorian England, the authors of serialized novels were equally reactive. Whether they liked it or not, the reaction of the audience (and sometimes critical reception) shaped the story that was to come. A perfect example of this is with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes. This collection of popular mystery stories famously ended with Sherlock’s defeat by his arch nemesis. Sherlock falls from a cliff, plummets to his death, and that was supposed to conclude Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes.
However, public outcry after the death of this beloved hero was deafening — to the tune of 20,000 magazine subscription cancellations. Eventually, Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock back to life, deciding that his clifftop death had been faked by Sherlock to befuddle his enemy.
The debacle of Sherlock Holmes’ death and his subsequent return is a perfect analogy for the situation often created by the K-drama live-shoot system. Whether we’re talking about magazine subscription cancellations, or severe drops in ratings, the audience of a serialized story has a lot of impact on how it plays out.
This builds an interesting relationship between the creator seeking to tell a story according to their vision, and the audience seeking to be entertained by a story according to theirs. There’s a bit of push and pull in this relationship that makes it a fascinating dynamic.
On the other hand, it could be seen as a limitation for the creator, since they are influenced by the audience’s reaction to the point of losing some creative say in what happens. For instance, Conan Doyle actively wanted to kill off Sherlock Holmes and move on to a new chapter in his literary career. The voice of his readers, though (and maybe his editors), influenced — you might say even dictated — what he had planned for his own creation.
How are K-dramas similar in the way they listen to, and respond to, the voice of the viewer? The live-shoot system is infamous at this point — it often pushes cast and crew to the brink, and sometimes, the quality of the drama is sacrificed for the speed at which it’s produced and rushed on air.
I’m not here to defend this method of creating a drama, and I definitely think it needs a fair bit of regulation to ensure the health and safety of the cast and crew. That being said, the live-shoot system creates an interesting storytelling scenario that’s awfully similar to what it was like for authors of serialized novels over a century ago.
Whether you call it responsive, reactive, or just plain dangerous, the live-shoot system undoubtedly pays attention to the voice of its viewership. The commercial success of a drama depends a whole lot on ratings and K-drama productions go through hell and high water in order to build viewer interest, and then sustain it (or even better, grow it). The structure of a live-shoot drama is valuable to the production in that while creating, they can keep their finger on the pulse of the audience.
Live-shoot K-dramas are also often forced to be responsive to mid-drama controversy and scandals — much more so than if the drama was already produced. One major issue for live-shoot dramas has long been issues around the drama’s cast.
Han Ye-seul famously shook up the production and airing schedule of Myung-wol the Spy in 2011 when she refused to show up for filming. The recent melodrama Time lost its star Kim Jung-hyun mid-drama due to illness and exhaustion, and 2016 drama Fantastic faced a setback when second lead Ji-soo had a sudden health crisis. Both of these dramas were forced to alter their storylines on the fly to accommodate these real-life issues.
Similarly, 2018 drama Return booted its lead actress Go Hyun-jung mid-show due to some behind-the-scenes quarrels, and the upcoming drama Reach of Sincerity recently had to do a last-minute casting switch when their second lead Shin Dong-wook found himself in the midst of a personal scandal.
These are just a few examples of how the live-shoot system necessitates a production team to be reactive to scandals and any behind-the-scenes drama. But beyond that, it also causes the production to be responsive to criticisms around the story too.
A drama like 2018’s My Ajusshi is a prime example. It faced immediate criticism even before airing due to the 20-year age gap between stars IU and Lee Sun-kyun.
The production went to great lengths to convince the public that the story was not a romance, and The Korea Herald reported that in order to assuage viewer criticism, the production team chose to self-censor some of its content. It was reported that though producer Kim Won-suk was “not fully content with the moves,” they self-censored and kept with the original message of the drama as best as they could.
Another example of a drama that changed directions due to viewer reaction was 2017’s Introverted Boss. Coming from the team that created hit dramas like Marriage, Not Dating and Oh Hae-young Again, expectations were high — but the drama did not deliver according to viewer expectations. The drama premiered with ratings at just over 3% and the numbers nearly halved the following week.
Response to the first four episodes was so underwhelming (and criticism so loud) that the production team actually pressed pause on the drama, listened to the audience’s reaction, and re-tooled the script — and the direction and tone of the drama moving forward. While Introverted Boss never made sizable gains in ratings, it could be said that the story become stronger and more enjoyable because of their open reassessment.
These dramas are prime examples of the high-risk/high-reward production environment created by the live-shoot system. They also exemplify the idea of a creator adapting the story to the audience’s pleasure. Whether it’s a tweak to the script, a total rewrite, or — as with Sherlock Holmes, bringing a beloved character back to life, there’s no question the voice of the viewer has a lot of power over how a serialized story plays out.
Is the power of the viewer voice a good or bad thing for a serialized story? Depending on how you look at it, it could be either, or maybe even a little of both. In one sense it can make the drama look weak and reactive, prioritizing commercial success over storytelling integrity. But if you look at it another way, it could be seen as creating a meaningful relationship between the story and its audience.
As we’ve seen, whether it’s in Victorian England or present-day South Korea, a story told in serial installments creates lots of interesting storytelling dynamics. While it has its downsides, a serialized story also has the power to take a static creation and turn it into something that is living and breathing. A serialized story creates an ongoing dialogue between the writer, the audience — and the story itself.