Joyce Brand browses popular Korean websites, searching for her favorite Korean soap operas — or K-Dramas, according to fans. Brand is 65, from Los Angeles, and not your typical K-Drama fan.
She admits she didn’t know anything about South Korean television, until a serial popped up on her Netflix recommendation list.
“I started watching it, and as soon as I saw the subtitles, I thought about turning it off. But then I thought, well, I’ll watch it for a few minutes, and within 10 minutes I was hooked,” she says.
The show? “City Hunter,” a hit thriller about a man who’s hunting down his father’s killer. “I watched the whole 20 hours. Marathon-ed it!”
She’s been hooked since, and it's thanks to video streaming companies like DramaFever, the largest distributor of Asian TV content in North America. It attracts millions of viewers in the United States, and most of them are non-Asian.
“I think what we tapped into was the demand for foreign content regardless of your ethnic background," says Suk Park, co-founder of DramaFever. "A demand for foreign content that was something different, something exciting, something interesting that wasn’t available.”
Park stumbled on the idea for his company when he began searching for Korean television dramas to improve his own Korean language skills. Park is Korean-born but was raised in Spain and studied in the United States — and he quickly learned that finding those Korean shows was a challenge.
“Most of the consumption was happening online through illegal sites,” he says.
So, in 2008, Park launched DramaFever, a legal site with subtitled content, licensed from South Korean broadcasters. He now employs more than 60 people and runs sites in English and Spanish. Turns out, Korean dramas have become so popular with Latinos, that DramaFever just signed a deal with Hispanic broadcaster, Telemundo.
One very popular K-drama is "Coffee Prince,” a Cinderella story about a poor young woman who disguises herself as a boy to get work at a coffee shop. The rich store owner falls in love with him and then discovers he’s a woman. Park calls it a K-drama “classic.”
“You’ll always have the really rich, aloof, male lead, and then the poor girl, from a poor family with the heart of gold," he says.
Last fall, one of South Korea’s leading production companies joined forces with DramaFever to produce their first original series, “Heirs” — already a fan-favorite with 17 million views in just the first three months. The story is about privileged high school students and was filmed largely in California.
Other series have storylines about aliens falling in love with humans, dramas about about revenge with hoky twists and turns — and they are all packaged for binge-watching.
“It’s one complete story, one season, and then you’re out," says Sarah, who prefers to go by her online alias—“Java Beans.” She works full-time on a wildly popular Korean drama super-fan website called Dramabeans.
Sarah grew up in California watching Korean TV with her parents. “They were always on in my household. I watched so many [shows] that I don’t know the name of, that I barely remember the plots. My parents would just have them on, on the TV.”
She says changing viewing habits and YouTube fueled the genre’s popularity here in the US.
Sarah and her co-writer Jen — who goes by her online handle “Girl Friday” — regularly host K-drama meet-ups in cities like New York and Seattle.
“We had 60-something-year-old professors, 18-year-old college students, people who were like, 'Um, I’m in high school. I can’t come to this meet-up at the bar, can you meet me at the local Starbucks?'” she recalls.
American media companies are taking note of this growing viewership. Hulu recently partnered with DramaFever to offer more than 200 different K-Dramas on their own site. Netflix is expanding its foreign content too.
But Park says he isn't expecting to compete with companies like Showtime or HBO. He has other goals in mind.
“Entertainment is a gateway to culture. Through Korean dramas, you become familiar with Korean values, Korea as a country, Korean food, Korean customs,” Park says.
And the shows are proving America's endless appetite for binge TV viewing goes beyond the English language.
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