By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Raissa Villasin, a Filipino woman living in Norwalk, Calif., is a long-time fan of Korean dramas, having stumbled on one while channel surfing in 2002.
She got hooked, watching Korean dramas on local channels LA 18 or KXLA 44, and on online streaming sites where she enjoyed dramas such as ``Wedding’’ and ``You’re Beautiful.’’
``What I like about Korean dramas is the story. Even if I watch it without subtitles, I can still pretty much follow the storyline. The language may be different but the themes are similar and universal. ... It gives me a glimpse into another culture and how similar and different it is from my own,’’ Villasin said.
Her favorite Web site is www.DramaFever.com, which offers a way to watch Korean dramas that is both legal and for free for residents in the U.S. and Canada.
Unlike most Web sites that illegally stream Korean dramas, DramaFever has acquired licenses from major Korean broadcasters to air the dramas online for the U.S. and Canada market. It is the first streaming site in North America to do this legally.
After creating an account, users can access DramaFever’s extensive library of Korean dramas which include old favorites such as ``Sandglass’’ and ``Coffee Prince’’ to newer ones including ``Shining Inheritance’’ (known in Korea as ``Brilliant Legacy'') and ``Boys Over Flowers.’’
Suk Park and Seung Bak are the brains behind DramaFever, whose office is based in New York City.
Park was born in Korea, raised in Spain and educated in the U.S. He worked managing the international division of Ziff Davis Media, focusing on international business development and licensing between 2004 and 2008.
``During my business travels to Asia, I noticed the popularity of Korean dramas. Seung and I decided to research the consumption patterns for this genre in the U.S. We noticed a business opportunity when we found over two dozen pirate online sites servicing this content illegally with no real legal alternative for users,’’ Park told The Korea Times.
Their initial research revealed that as much as five to six million unique users watch Korean dramas on illegal streaming sites in the U.S. every month.
However, Korean broadcasting companies and content owners seemed to turn a blind eye to the blatant piracy on the Internet. They were even reluctant to allow DramaFever to buy the licenses for the dramas.
``You would think that a company who wants to pay for licenses in an effort to minimize piracy and monetize content, the broadcasters would be willing to do business with us. But in the beginning, they were not so welcoming to the idea,’’ Park said.
All they had was one great idea and a Powerpoint presentation, and it took around eight months of business meetings and going to Korea to pitch to content owners (``and a lot of drinking,’’ Park laughed) before DramaFever signed its first licensing agreement with MBC. After that, two other major Korean broadcasters, several independent drama and documentary producers followed suit.
``The biggest challenge was convincing the content owners that we could make DramaFever work and to trust us with their content. Like with any other business, it took perseverance,’’ he added.
DramaFever.com opened with a beta version in January 2009, and by August 2009, the Web site was fully operational. DramaFever’s mission, Park says, is ``to provide the best of Asian entertainment and bring it in a format that American audiences can enjoy.’’
In just over a year of operations, DramaFever has received positive feedback from users, who enjoyed the clear video and sound, as well as the excellent subtitles.
The Korean dramas are subtitled in English. Often the subtitles are the official ones from the broadcasters, but sometimes the subtitles are the work of ``fansubbers’’ or groups of fans who translate the dramas into English.
Villasin, who has been using the site since the start, says DramaFever offers a good service to fans of Korean dramas.
``At least when they upload it, they upload it as a complete series, not one episode at a time. But the thing about DramaFever is at least, you know it is not going to get yanked for copyright infringement since they have the license or the permission. ... Once it’s up, it’s up and there are no broken links,’’ she said.
The advertisements, which pop up while users watch the dramas, may be a little annoying. But these generate revenue that has allowed the Web site to operate and offer its service for free.
For users who want the convenience of watching dramas without ads, a premium subscription for a monthly fee of $4.99 or less is available. Aside from commercial free-episodes, users can get access to new drama series two weeks ahead of the free users.
The most popular package is a one-year subscription for $40. ``At $3 a month, that’s cheaper than coffee here in New York,’’ Park quipped.
DramaFever is growing significantly, with around 200,000 unique users visiting the Web site as of mid-January.
``This number has grown 30 percent plus every month since our launch in August. We expect to reach 500,000 unique users by this summer and hopefully one million unique users by early next year,’’ Park said.
Korean dramas are expected to go into the mainstream when DramaFever starts providing Korean content for popular video Web site Hulu. A DramaFever channel will be launched on www.hulu.com within two months.
Hulu, a joint venture between NBC, Fox and ABC, provides streaming videos of TV shows and films from these three major U.S. networks. Like DramaFever, it is only available in the U.S.
``We are hoping that by showcasing Korean content through Hulu, we will be able to reach viewers who will enjoy this content and who might have never been exposed to it otherwise,’’ Park said.
While DramaFever only carries Korean dramas for now, there are plans to add more content, such as Korean variety TV shows, music videos, movies and live events, as well as content from other Asian countries. ``We are hoping to extend our offering outside of the U.S. as well, to Latin America and Europe, and these versions would have subtitles in their local language as well,’’ he said.
But who exactly is watching Korean dramas on DramaFever? Surprisingly, non-Asians make up 71 percent of the viewers, led by Caucasians (40 percent), African-American (18 percent) and Hispanic (13 percent). Asians make up the remainder.
``When we tell broadcasters that 40 percent of our users are Caucasians, they go `what?’ These are the people who won’t get a Korean cable channel or rent or buy DVDs in Koreatown,’’ Park said.
Viewers are 52 percent female, and 48 percent male. In terms of age groups, the biggest is the 18-34 age bracket (39 percent), followed 35-49 year olds (25 percent), and teens aged 13-17 (17 percent).
At a time when U.S. shows like ``C.S.I.’’ and ``Prisonbreak’’ are extremely popular in Korea, it is curious to see what attracts American viewers to Korean dramas.
Park says Korean dramas provide excellent, family-oriented entertainment, a welcome relief from the violent and sexual themes of most American TV shows.
``A lot of people are not happy with U.S. content right now. It is just too sexual, too violent, too graphic, it's just too much. ... A lot of people love the Korean drama storylines, humor and twists. For the most part, they are not explicitly violent or sexual, which makes them perfect for family watching as well as values which are making a comeback in the U.S.,’’ Park said.
Jacqui Pastoral-Conclara, who lives in San Bruno, Calif., only started watching Korean drama ``Boys Over Flowers’’ last year but she feels it’s a good way to learn about Koreans and Korean culture.
``Koreans (seem to) value their families. Their children love, serve and honor their parents. They also have so much respect for their history and value their country,’’ she said.
Hallyu or Korean wave, which includes dramas, pop music and films, have helped raise the profile of Koreans and Asians, as well as shatter stereotypes prevalent in the U.S. media.
``We no longer see the stereotypes of Asians which used to dominate television during the early years of our childhood. Instead, we see actors like Daniel Dae Kim and Kim Yun-jin from `Lost' and singers like Rain and Wonder Girls who are reshaping the way we think about Asians in television,’’ Park said.