Yoo Dong-geun, left, and Kim Hae-sook in JTBC's "Childless Comfort." / Korea Times file
By Kim Tong-hyung
Veteran writer Kim Soo-hyun has been the Korean television industry's golden goose for as long as anyone can remember and she shows no sign of running out of eggs.
Kim's body of work over the past four decades includes some of the most watched shows in history. But it could be said that her recent drama, "Childless Comfort,'' is her biggest achievement yet because it has single-handedly elevated a struggling cable television network into becoming a true force in broadcasting.
According to Nielsen Korea, JTBC has been consistently getting 10 percent-plus viewer ratings on Childless Comfort ― a family drama that revolves around an elderly couple, their three-sons and wives, and the grandchildren.
The latest episode on Sunday earned a rating of 10.71 percent, truly an impressive number for pay-television standards because cable channels rarely manage to touch 1 percent on most of their programs, whether they be dramas, sketch comedies, talk shows, documentaries and news.
More than 38 percent of cable television viewers who tuned in between 8:50 p.m. and 10 p.m. Sunday watched Childless Comfort, Nielsen said.
Even when compared with national television dramas sharing the same timeslot, Childless Comfort is the show to beat. MBC is managing just around a 6 percent rating for its weekend drama,"Sons,'' while SBS has also yet to crack 10 percent for "My Love Butterfly Wife.''
For JTBC, a channel owned by vernacular newspaper JoongAng Ilbo, Childless Comfort is more than just a hit show, but a critical breakthrough as a broadcasting network.
JTBC was one of the four ''comprehensive programming'' cable channels ― providing original news content atop entertainment, sports and documentaries ― that were granted license after the previous government of Lee Myung-bak lifted the cross-ownership ban on newspapers and television stations. The other three channels are also owned by newspapers ― Chosun Ilbo (TV Chosun), Dong-A Ilbo (Chanel A) and Maeil Business Daily (MBN).
Market watchers, however, claimed there wasn't much room for all of the new channels to survive, let alone thrive, when the market for advertisers is already stretched thin.
It's hard to predict which channels are most likely to sizzle or fizzle. SBS, the country's newest terrestrial channel that went live in 1991, toiled with poor viewership for years and was taken seriously only after its 1995 miniseries, "Hourglass," became a massive hit.
The fate of the new pay-television channels and the hierarchy between them was always going to depend on which network manages to make a content breakthrough first. And it appears that JTBC is experiencing its own Hourglass-like breakthrough with Childless Comfort.
While market insiders say that JTBC overpaid for Kim Soo-hyun's services, the 70-year-old writer has been worth every penny. At this point, Kim's success in television dramas has become as predictable as the sun coming up.
Kim's stories are mostly about Korean family life ― how traditional values conflict with the new and how women struggle to adjust to or resist the cultural suppression at home and work. And viewers just can't get enough of her tales, although critics are beginning to say that her recent works have been mere parodies of her old ones.