Bringing the World Together one Drama at a Time: The Allure of International Streaming Media

What do you do when you’ve “hate watched” your way through all the Reality TV and “Downton Abbey you can handle, and network programming has become downright insulting or de rigeur?

If you’re anything like Carolyn Rosenweig, you simply look elsewhere.

Not a big Television watcher Rosenweig explained that she has repeatedly tried to find shows that interest her but there is never anything on network television when she wants to watch. “I just want to watch good television and most of it’s crap like “Gossip Girl,” she said, “and good cable is just out of the question.”

Although she would have never previously considered watching a television program online, desperate times called for desperate measures.  Based on the recommendation of a friend and undaunted by subtitles and bad streams of dubious origin, she searched out a South Korean drama called “Coffee Prince.  “I just Googled it and it came up in the search results, and I remember being surprised,” she said, “I really didn’t think Hulu had stuff from other countries.”

She isn’t the only person to make this discovery. In the past few years there has been an explosion of Asian media, specifically dramas from South Korea, also known as “K-Dramas,” in the United States.  Online media hubs like HuluDramafever and Viki have been attracting large numbers of non-asian viewers by streaming media from different countries, particularly Korean dramas like “Coffee Prince”.

Aside for being in Korean they is not much different between korean dramas and anything you might watch on network television, but they do have a certain addictive appeal.  Rosenweig cited the attractive male actors and an endearing female lead as a big part of the shows initial charm, which along with the incredible plot twists kept her coming back for more. She and her sister, Catherine, powered through all 17 hour long episodes in the series over the course of a week. “It was a guilty pleasure.” she said, “but there was a period where we just couldn’t stop and we were watching episodes back to back.”

Now she can’t picture her life without Korean dramas. “I was bummed out that it was over,” she said, “now I almost can’t imagine going back to watching American television.”

None of this surprises Seung Bak the Co-Founder of Dramafever, the company that partnered with Hulu to make Korean dramas like “Coffee Prince available in North America. “There are a lot of people that just want to watch good dramas,” he said, “It doesn’t matter the language or what the faces look like. Good drama is good drama.”

According to Bak people are tired of the repetition and predictability of American network television. What they want is to watch something entertaining and new regardless of where it’s from and with more than 200 thousand daily visitors, according to their website, it would seem Bak is right.

The fastest growing online streaming media hub of it’s kind Dramafever, which launched in 2009, is based out of the United States and is geared towards a non-Asian, North American audience explained Bak, and it provides subtitles for thousands of hours of media streaming from different countries around the world.

Coffee Prince is just one of many international programs that are now streaming on Hulu through Dramafever.   Along with programs like “Iris, “The Great Queen Seon Duk“, “My Lovely Sam Soon” and “Boys before Flowers it was among the first Korean dramas that debuted on Hulu when their partnership with Dramafever began in early 2010.   Now with more than 400 unique titles Dramafever offers much more than just Korean dramas.  Their catalogue includes programming from China, Taiwan and Indonesia as well as feature films, documentaries, news, music videos, travelogues and their latest addition Dramafever Latino, which features a growing selection of programs from Latin America.

Although it might seem strange to think that korean dramas would appeal to the average North American to Bak it’s no surprise, and the bottom line is simple people like good drama and if they find what they are looking for they will come back for more. “The stories look great, the shows have global themes and the story lines are comparable with other drama outlets like Telenovelas,” Bak said, “ and they’re uplifting in general.”

Tammy Nam the North American General Manager for Viki agrees. “Part of the appeal is entertainment value but countries like China, Japan and South Korea have a long history of quality productions and quality is universal.”

Viki, is a streaming media hub that is unique in this field.  Part online media hub and part social network it distinguishes itself from it’s competitors with a sizable inventory of programs and movies from more than 100 countries worldwide including much of Europe, Israel, China, United Arab Emirates and of course, South Korea.

With offices in Singapore, San Francisco and Seoul Viki launched in 2008 as both a free and subscription service making it possible for people to stream programming with subtitles in the language of their choice.   From English to Spanish to Klingon, Viki harnesses the passion of it’s fan base to expedite the subtitling process through a wikipedia style crowdsourcing system that it uses to create subtitles for programs in over 150 languages.

Perhaps what’s more amazing than the incredible production quality, good looking actors, or the fact that you can watch them for free, on your phone, during your lunch break at work, is that good drama has the ability to transcend distance, language and culture in a way that many other modes of communication can’t.

Now Rosenweig’s eyes are wide open to the world of possibilities that she knew was out there, but never had a way to access. “I liked Coffee Prince because it portrayed Koreans as regular people, like you and me” she said, “now I find myself not just interested in Korea, but in the people and I want to know more about them.”

Bak believes that this is one of the fundamental attractions of foreign dramas, and part of Dramafever’s long term appeal. “It allows people to communicate with people in other parts of the world through the media,” he said, and this is really at the crux of the issue.

As media hubs like Dramafever and Viki continue to pioneer the global streaming media market, and partner with companies like Hulu to provide not just Korean dramas but new and innovative programming from all over the globe, they are able to offer people an opportunity to expand their understanding of the world even if it’s through something as superficial as watching a television program.

As we move more rapidly towards a global economy and look for new opportunities, and new pockets of commerce, finding ways to connect with the different cultures we are overlapping with becomes increasingly important.  In a way streaming media has helped facilitated this process by providing an opportunity not just for media providers to find new audiences but for audiences to expand their horizons as well.


(Screen shot of K-Dramas Iris and Mischevious Kiss/Playful Kiss)