Like the varied stories, locations and characters they depict, a K-drama show can be divided into any number of episodes – which vary in length – and may be a limited series or leave open the option of a second season.
The industry has changed a lot over the years and, as it has grown more sophisticated, it has opted for tighter shows, dropping the longer period dramas that used to be common.
Yet things are being shaken up again by the arrival of streaming services, each with their own standards. What’s more, each year seems to bring with it a larger crop of follow-up seasons, something which used to be extremely rare.
Most prime-time Korean dramas air episodes on consecutive nights twice a week, and occupy those slots for around two months. Compare that to typical Western network shows, which air just once a week but pump out new episodes for as much as six months of the year, with the story always angling towards a new season – whether the network gives the green light for one or not.
For K-drama fans, this is seen as the ideal structure: a full story given plenty of time to breathe, but with a clear conclusion. The long episodes and twice-weekly broadcast slots demand a lot of viewer engagement, but the two-month run makes it a rich journey since it is short enough to stave off ennui.
How many episodes?
Over the years, K-dramas have become more expensive to make, and more sophisticated. Prime-time dramas no longer go on for 50+ episodes, like the 2004 classic Jewel in the Palace. Season lengths still vary, but the most common length for a show is 16 episodes.
Beyond that, 10-, 12- or 20-episode shows are most common. The longer 20-episode format is generally reserved for period dramas, like the recent Mr. Queen and River Where the Moon Rises, but also certain star-driven event shows, like Mouse with Lee Seung-gi and the Song Joong-ki vehicle Vincenzo.
Ji Jin-hee (left) and Lee Young-ae in a still from Jewel in the Palace. The show ran for 54 episodes between September 2003 and March 2004.
The shorter, 10- to 12-episode shows will either be programmes that target more limited audiences, like Navillera (older viewers) or Nevertheless (young spectators) or more experimental programmes, like OCN’s Dramatic Cinema projects like Team Bulldog and Dark Hole, or tvN’s The Cursed, all of which were helmed by film directors, who are less familiar with longer television formats.
That said, popular shows can sometimes score extra episodes if the ratings command it, like SBS’ The Penthouse, which tacked episodes on to both its first and third seasons.
How long is each episode?
Since most shows determine their length according to the broadcast slots they fill, programmes will generally stick to a certain running time throughout their runs.
Excluding ads, episode runtimes can go as long as 80 minutes, while briefer shows may average an hour. Concerning the overall length of a show, that can make a big difference, especially when many 12-episode shows like Dark Hole will average an hour per episode, while a 20-episode show like Vincenzo may opt for the longer 80-minute format.
Certain individual episodes can go even longer, such as the 100-minute finale of Mouse earlier this year, but broadcast and cable series will never run less than an hour.
How many seasons?
The big difference between Korean and Western shows is that K-dramas are known for having self-contained stories that only run for one season, regardless of their popularity.
A promotional image for the Korean show Iris (2009).
However, over the past 10 years that has steadily been changing. Hit shows like Iris spawned sister shows (Athena: Goddess of War) or were even repackaged as movies (Iris: The Movie). Over time, typical second seasons, following on chronologically with the same characters, also began to emerge. But these only happen for certain kinds of shows. The romantic drama, the bread and butter of the industry, retains a strict one-season format.
Voice, the fourth season of which recently aired, is a rare case, and then something like The Penthouse can catch the cultural zeitgeist and be renewed immediately, resulting in a three-season series aired over the course of 11 months.
The impact of streaming platforms
The arrival of Netflix and other streaming platforms has greatly affected the size and structure of the shows we watch.
Jun Ji-hyun in a still from Kingdom: Ashin of the North. Photo: Netflix
On Netflix, shows drop at the same time in binge-able chunks, and the streaming platform spends a lot more on each episode in its series, resulting in shorter episode orders. They have typically run for six episodes, but eight or 10 isn’t unusual.
Without the obligation of fitting into a broadcast schedule, episode lengths vary, but they are generally much shorter. They rarely go over an hour and can be as short as 36 minutes, such as the penultimate episode of Kingdom season 2. This may have to do with the fact that most Netflix drama directors are big-screen filmmakers, often working on small-screen projects for the first time.
Finally, given Netflix’s American roots, the aim for most shows is to renew them for subsequent seasons if they catch on. Cognisant of the local model, Netflix hasn’t been renewing their Korean shows at the same rate as their shows elsewhere, but several, including Kingdom and Love Alarm, have been renewed.
Kim Si-eun (left) and Song Kang in a still from Love Alarm. Photo: Netflix
As the K-drama ecosystem welcomes more shows, how might streaming series and standard broadcast and cable shows influence each other going forward?Internet Explorer Channel Network