Why Korean Drama Fans Hate Netflix

Netflix’s approach to kdramas has changed, and it’s made them everyone’s least favorite kdrama delivery vehicle. I discussed this a bit in episode #37 of our podcast, but I’ve a few more details now.

Last we spoke, the biggest thing Netflix had going on in relation to kdramas was a few decent titles, a lot of mediocre ones, and the advantage of being a service with no ads that almost everyone already has. Since then, Netflix has decided to get into the game in a much bigger way. Suddenly it started offering more famous dramas. Then a big shoe dropped: they started getting exclusive U.S. and even sometimes international distribution rights. In one case – that of Kingdom, a Joseon-era zombie feature that has yet to air – they pulled a Dramafever and invested directly into the production before it started.

None of this is that big of a deal. It’s a pain that there’s yet another site on the list that kdrama aficionados need a subscription to if they want to watch some of the most buzzed about dramas of the year. But like I mentioned before, almost everyone already has a Netflix subscription, so it’s much preferable to a network like HBO or Starz, or even Hulu, getting into the game.

Why even buy exclusive rights to a show as anticipated as Age of Youth 2 only to toss it in a drawer for six months?

However, one shoe was left hanging, and then it too dropped: Netflix bought exclusive international rights to some very anticipated dramas, but when they started airing in Korea, we heard nothing but crickets from Netflix. In short: Netflix owned the streaming rights to a popular kdrama, but didn’t release it.

The two most infamous cases have occurred in the past twelve months: Age of Youth 2 in 2017, and now all over again with Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food (marketed internationally as Something in the Rain). The also-anticipated Live might now be a Netflix exclusive as well. Two (or three) hot dramas with built-in fanbases based on prior seasons or the team’s previous work. Age of Youth 2 started airing in August and wrapped at the beginning of October. That entire time the show wasn’t available anywhere (legally) online for English-speaking fans. OnDemandKorea had it, but with no subtitles.

A month or so after the show finished airing it was up on Netflix, but just in the UK and some other countries. It still wasn’t available in the United States. It didn’t show up until March 2018, when it was dropped quietly with little fanfare. It almost felt like a distraction, or an attempt at appeasement, over the anger that was brewing over Pretty Noona. Here was an equally, if not more, anticipated drama, at least amongst English-speaking kdrama fandom, that Netflix yet again scooped up the exclusive rights to. At this point everyone was bracing themselves, and fears were realized: the show started airing, yet again without a peep from Netflix.

There’s a rumor going around that Pretty Noona will go up on Netflix in late May, a week or two after it finishes airing in Korea. This mirrors other dramas like Prison Playbook which Netflix bought the exclusive rights to and released soon after it finished airing. For a viewer like me, who only watches kdramas after they finish airing, this isn’t that big of a deal. But there are two salient facts: 1) the majority of kdrama fandom live watches, and 2) with highly anticipated shows, most post-watchers (including myself) are chomping at the bit for a show to finish so they can watch, so any delays aren’t appreciated.

I’m gutted that I don’t know when for sure I’ll be able to see all these heart eyes and puppy eyes.

Let’s look more closely at the second point first. The biggest sin Netflix is committing in relation to this point is that they’re not announcing when they’ll release a drama. They snatch up the exclusive rights to a show, then sit on it – in the most egregious case, for months – without a peep as to whether or not anyone will ever get to see it, and if so, when. That’s what’s crazy about the Age of Youth 2 nonsense, is that as the months dragged by and it was available elsewhere but not Stateside, it led people to wonder if it would ever be released. That’s why I’m feeling so jumpy about Pretty Noona despite the fact that it’ll probably be on Netflix right around the time I want to watch it: because we don’t actually know. How hard is it to announce when you’ll release the show? Just send a press release to Soompi or Dramabeans. Everyone will see it.

Now I know this isn’t new for Netflix: they didn’t announce until the last minute when The Punisher was going to drop, for example. But Punisher was a Netflix Original (despite what the service itself likes to call “Netflix Originals,” I only use the term to indicate a show produced by Netflix and thus unique and exclusive worldwide to the service). It wasn’t available anywhere, for anyone, until Netflix released it. And because it was an in-house production, it’s possible it wasn’t done until close to its release announcement (I don’t really know anything about The Punisher so if that isn’t true, please excuse me). But in the case of Age of Youth 2 and other kdramas, we know the show is done and some other people are watching it. The holdup is thus worse given Netflix’s refusal to acknowledge the show’s existence other than to prevent people from accessing it.

Which brings us to the first point. English-speaking kdrama fandom is already an active, developed entity (and I assume other kdrama fandoms outside Korea are experiencing similar shenanigans, but I can only speak to the English-speaking side’s experience). Most participants live watch. And unlike active online fandoms for shows or films with a larger general audience, active kdrama fandom is just about the only English-speaking audience watching.

Netflix might do things differently; it might want to not announce when any of its original or exclusive shows will drop until right before they do, if even then. But it’s just bad sense to wander into an already established and thriving ecosystem and insist it change to suit your rules, especially since the established group is the only one impacted. Netflix has shown they don’t have to approach dramas this way: they shared the rights to Hwayugi/A Korean Odyssey, another highly anticipated show, with Viki, and everyone was happy (except about how Hwayugi ended, but that’s another story).

Kdrama fans begging Netflix for any word on the shows it bought.

Of course there’s a gigantic audience for kdramas beyond Korea that dwarfs the size of English-speaking fandom. In many cases fans in other countries are getting the shows sooner, or as they air, either on their local stations or legally online, as their countries have different distribution deals. It seems that Netflix might be making some episodes of Pretty Noona available online in other countries.

Which is why I’m not asking that the U.S. get first kdrama access after Korea. The audience isn’t as big here, and even if it were, it’s problematic, to say the least, to expect the U.S. to always come first. My ideal would be that international audiences all get kdramas at around the same time, as soon as possible after episodes air in Korea. But more reasonably, all I’d really ask is that if Netflix holds off on releasing a drama until it’s finished airing, they announce that they’re doing so with a release date. It can’t be hard to send out a quick press announcement to some big Hallyu sites.

If people aren’t being asked to wait an unreasonable amount of time, many will wait. But if we’re made to wait a while – or especially if we must wait without knowing when we’re waiting for – people are going to pirate it. That’s just how it is. Trying to force viewers entrenched in doing things one way to do them another way is going to be a difficult battle, and more people are going to go elsewhere rather than change their viewing habits. Netflix’s best shot at getting people to wait for when it wants to release a show is to not ask them to wait long, and give them a clear date for a countdown.

At this point, all Netflix is doing is souring its reputation among kdrama customers. They can’t have high numbers of Netflix users who casually click on kdramas while browsing. So why anger the base they’re supposedly appealing to with their greater kdrama investment? Especially because it’s not like Netflix has to do things this way in order to pull in more casual viewers to their kdrama content. If anything, it might make any semi- but not fully-invested viewers stop caring and forget by the time the show’s actually available. None of the actual kdrama customers want this. At this point, there’s an element of dread when each new intriguing drama is announced, because we all fear Netflix getting its claws into it.

Netflix is making all of its customers who love kdramas hate their service. It needs to change its approach, fast.

Are you as upset as I am about Netflix’s kdrama games? Think I’m crazy or complain too much? Or are there any sources of info on Netflix’s release schedule that I’ve missed? Comment below with your thoughts!