PART I/THE PRESENT: WHY CANADA HASN’T MADE GLOBAL TV HITS

CHAPTER 4

OTHER COUNTRIES DO GLOBALITY

“We have such small budgets that we have to be unique in how we tell a story… If I want to convince the audience to watch Hatufim [Prisoners of War] and not Breaking Bad, I really have to be special… What the most successful Israeli shows have done is be extremely Israeli. Be very, very local and as personal as possible. There you find the universal themes that an international audience can enjoy.”77

A December 2019 article in The New York Times listed the 30 best international shows of the decade from 2010 to 2020.78 The U.K. had twelve. France had three. Germany, Israel, and South Korea each had two. Australia, Argentina, Denmark, India, Ireland, Italy, Norway, Spain, and Canada each had one. Canada’s Letterkenny (2016-, Crave) ranked #29. In January 2020, Netflix Co-CEO and Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, stated that Netflix would be producing 130 seasons of local language television in 2020, asserting that audiences want good stories in whatever language they’re told. As an example, he mentioned that 80% of Netflix viewing in Brazil is not in Portuguese.79 On April 5, 2021, in an interview on the podcast Smartless, Sarandos reported that overall viewing in non-English was increasing 50% year-over-year; and that watching in Korean, specifically in the U.S., was up 100%. The conclusion is inescapable: the next global hit can and will come from anywhere.

From this one perspective, Canada’s continued focus on the domestic market seems almost silly. Canada is 0.4% of the global population; to be clear this means less than half of one percent (the U.S. is only 4.0%). It makes little sense that Canada ever thought that the most expensive TV genre could become sustainable in the Canadian market, even if wildly profitable; let’s say, as profitable as a Hollywood hit! Keep in mind that even Hollywood hits have always required popularity in a global market to reach profitability. Now, factor in streaming and the globalization of markets that are eradicating territorial TV markets. Early in this historic distribution disruption, recommendations surfaced that countries with national frameworks should focus on policy measures to improve content, given that distribution mechanisms would be fluid for some time. Canada did not heed these reports.

Not only did Canada lose time innovating policy to optimize the new dynamics brought about global, online distribution, it also lost time seizing new content development dynamics. In an effort to meet the unprecedented demand for great stories, Hollywood began to actively recruit concepts, scripts, and formats from around the world. Many nations did take advantage of this moment of opportunity. To nations with small domestic populations, the opportunity to reach large audiences has been a game-changer.

Research indicates that some small nations do not see Netflix as a threat, but both a competitor and an opportunity. Even Quebec, Canada’s French-language province has this perspective,80 which follows from a philosophical position that competition has a strengthening function. The Canadian English-language TV sector did not readily embrace the new opportunity. Hampered by the twin burdens of the love/hate relationship with the U.S. and a default policy preference for protection over competition, the industry positioned Netflix as a threat to survival.

As streaming took hold, an ethos of globality emerged. Not only did audience resistance to subtitles dissolve, globality was woven into the storyline in Hollywood shows, such as the 2020 Netflix series Away, the story of an international mission to Mars. It features a female American commander, Indian medical officer, Chinese chemist, British botanist, and Russian cosmonaut, each of whom sometimes speaks in their native language, with subtitles in whatever language the viewer chooses. A globality ethos is also evident in another 2020 Netflix hit, Bridgerton, a wonderfully colour-blind take on a Downton-esque period drama.

Prime time TV from four countries is explored below: U.K., Denmark, Israel, and the Republic of South Korea (Korea). Each has been chosen strategically for the value of comparison to Canada. The UK is the world’s second largest English-language market and after Hollywood, the second major supplier of global TV hits. Denmark is one of several tiny European countries whose drama, similar to TV from Netherlands and Norway, attracts large global audiences; a consequence of this success has been increased domestic production. Two more small countries from two more continents, Israel and The Republic of South Korea, have also forged global success stories.

Each section concludes with lists of shows. To compare global hits across countries, three types of public data were informally triangulated: IMDB lists by popularity ranking; Google ratings; and Wikipedia to verify nationality and production specifications. While imperfect, these comparisons are at least ‘apples to apples’ and suggest each country’s participation in the globality era.

United Kingdom (UK): Globality as goal

The UK, with a population of 67M, is the world’s second largest English-language media market.  Canada, with an English-speaking population of about 28M, has been considered third. However, with media markets now global, these statistics have less traction because billion person markets where English is prevalent, such as India, become important. Additionally, the Internet renders English nearly universal and as well, the viewer’s language of choice is just a click away. A key statistical comparison to Canada is the UK’s record as a purveyor of global hits. The UK claims to rank second to Hollywood in export revenue of 3.6B. As an aside, in the same year, Canadian TV exports were estimated to be about 100M.81 The UK’s exports are more than 20 times more than Canada’s, but the UK population is only 2 times that of Canada.  The differential in exports between the UK and Canada can in part be attributed to popularity and one of its consequences, series renewal, which creates an economy of scale that reduces the high risk of R&D. Doing development well saves money in the long run: pun intended.

In contrast to the sometimes defensive tone of Canadian TV policy discourse, the dominant theme in the UK is straight up embrace of opportunities in the global market. Policy factors that contribute to the UK’s success include globality as an explicit goal, as well as streamlined strategies to achieve this goal that are backed up with tactical instruments. Compared to the UK creative industries generating about 175B for their GDP, the Canadian creative industries have been assessed at generating less than 5% of that, under 8B.82 Winning the global market is UK policy goal #1, including the assumption that domestic popularity is an indicator of export potential. Other documents state audacious goals such as doubling creative exports and foreign direct investment (FDI) by 2030:83

“The UK’s creative industries are a global success story generating over £101bn [nearly 175B CAD] for the UK economy – equivalent to £11.5m per hour. Over the last decade, the sector has grown twice as fast as the UK economy as a whole and shows no sign of slowing down. It is estimated the sector will be worth £130bn GVA by 2025 as international demand continues to grow.”84

With 80% of products by UK creative industries already destined for export, in June 2019, an interim goal was tabled by the UK Creative Industries Trade and Investment Board (CITIB): increase creative exports by 50% by 2023 and as well, increase the number of creative businesses exporting.

An export goal is not new in the UK. Global export was centre stage in earlier 21st century initiatives including “Cool Britannia” and “Creative England.” Winning the global battle for attention has been the UK’s dominant policy message during the same years that the Canadian TV industry has spent arguing about how best to protect its TV industry from the global market, since 2014. Back then, the UK seized the moment to assert that its creative industries “play an integral role in shaping Brand Britain on the world stage” and that its TV industry would strengthen by competing with global services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Apple.85 Results were evident when, in July 2020, the UK announced its global audience (including news) had increased 11% to 486M per week and called its media an “unrivaled global brand.” Globality is also evident on the distribution side, such as the goal to unleash the “full global potential”86 of Britbox, the streaming service by BBC and ITV. In July 2020, Britbox announced its intention to expand its reach to 25 countries following its popular uptake in Canada and the U.S., extending the UK’s strong “global premium brand”87 and further corroborating the well-understood role of TV exports in enhancing global influence, i.e. soft power:

“Not only is Downton Abbey a much loved show in Britain, it has had huge success in the U.S. and right around the world, waving the flag for Britain and our creative content”88

The UK’s commitment to globality is more than just policy rhetoric because coordinated policy strategies support this goal:

“…conscious interventions over a long period of time. A heritage of creativity, a highly skilled workforce, a good policy framework and an entrepreneurial attitude have propelled the UK forward.”89

Competition, rather than protection, is positioned as a strengthening function, even as global competition is acknowledged as a challenge. Even the hurdle posed by Brexit is framed as an imperative to shape the British brand, with CBI asserting in the same paper that “The Brexit debate continues and the UK must renegotiate its place in the world, deciding what it wants to be known for internationally.”

At least three policy instruments support the UK globality goal. A sliding-scale funding model is producer-accessed and distribution agnostic, rendering projects for digital distributors eligible for funding. (See Chapter 7 for my plan for a Canadian Globality Score/G-Score featuring producer-accessed, distribution agnostic, sliding-scale funding). Flexibility is a key feature of the UK funding model, as only 10% of costs must be spent in the UK. In contrast, Canada’s funding model requires 75% of costs to be spent in Canada and is one of the world’s least flexible. In the UK, quotas can be filled with a wide range of jobs, compared to Canada where the writer job is a fixed element in the point system, and nearly equivalent to some below-the-line jobs. The UK flexibility implicitly acknowledges the imperative to engage the best writer for the project as the key to globality. Thirdly, the UK model does not require, as does the Canadian framework, that producers retain global copyright for 25 years. Canada insists on this ostensible protection, using arguments that contradict the common practice of distribution agreements geared to secure the right to exploit (noting Canadian workarounds have evolved that allow a producer to technically retain copyright yet assign global exploitation rights to a foreign distributor).

Top ten shows. UK TV’s global reach is not signified by policy but by its results, i.e. the number of popular shows that ranked in the top 30 global shows of the decade:

“Britain takes 12 of the 30 spots, which … mainly reflects that country’s unmatched heritage of making good TV, with significant government support.”90

While subjective, like all “best” lists, these 12 shows include these: This is England (Amazon); Broadchurch (Netflix); My Mad Fat Diary (Hulu); Unforgotten (Amazon); Fleabag (Amazon); Detectorists (AcornTV); A Very English Scandal (Amazon); Killing Eve (Hulu); Chewing Gum (Netflix); The Crown (Netflix); Happy Valley (Netflix); and Sherlock (Netflix and pbs.org). The UK has more honorable mentions than any other country, suggesting its volume of global hits: Black Mirror, Catastrophe, Downton Abbey, Gentleman Jack, Line of Duty, Mum, People Just Do Nothing, and Top Boy.

Below are the top ten on the imdb 2020 Brit List:91 Summarizing the Google ratings, the ten show average is 88.3%.

1. Normal People (Hulu, 2020-). Google rating: 94%

2. May Destroy You (HBO, 2020-) Google rating: 93%

3. Gangs of London (SkyTV, 2020-) Google rating: 92%

4. A Suitable Boy (BBC, 2020-) Google rating: 79%

5. White Lines (Netflix, 2020-) Google rating: 86%

6. The Stranger (Netflix, 2020-) Google rating: 89%

7. Luminaries (BBC Two, 2020-) Google rating: 82%

8. Intelligence (Peacock, 2020-) Google rating: 85%

9. Dracula (Netflix & BBC, 2020-) Google rating: 87%

10. McDonald and Dodds (Hulu, 2020-) Google rating: 96%

Denmark: One Vision

Denmark, a peninsula on the northern tip of Germany with a population of 5.8M, has a remarkable TV story of early adaption to the global streaming market. Denmark is globally recognized as a supplier of great TV. According to former HBO executive, Hanne Palmquist (then VP Nordic), Danish TV broke the subtitle barrier with hits like Borgen (DR, 2010-2013; Netflix, 2020). The (then) rare accomplishment of global export in the original language cracked opened the door for other Nordic content such as Sweden’s Wallander (DR, 2005-2013) and Norway’s Lilyhammer (Netflix, 2012-2014), shows that opened the global market further to hits in native languages. (A few years later, Korea also claimed the subtitle breakthrough with its 2019 hit Parasite and the door was officially wide open.) The global popularity of Danish series including Borgen; The Bridge (FX, 2011-2014, FX); The Killing (DR, 2007-2012; 2011, AMC), and Rain (Netflix, 2018-2020) has had follow-on consequences for the Danish TV industry, namely a 10x increase in Danish production. As The New York Times observed: “The world wants more Danish TV than Denmark can handle.”92 Previous to the global market, Denmark had 2-3 shows in production at one time; global popularity has boosted that volume to 25-30. Global demand for Danish TV series has reportedly created labour shortages, both below-the-line (e.g. a 2 year wait for line producers) and above, notably for writers and showrunners. This proof that popularity increases volume is notable because in Canada, the opposite has been argued, with lobby groups asserting that increased production volume leads to increased popularity.

Global demand for Danish TV has been attributed to one thing: strong storytelling. This means the writing. The mechanism of accomplishment has been straightforward: policy with purpose. Two connected policy pillars contributed to this result. The first is a development policy called One Vision that encourages complex storylines coupled with extreme care on the scripts, an ethos highly regarded by the creative community. There is shared acknowledgement, from the top-down, that great storytelling leads to popularity and there is no shortcut to this goal. Early on, the practice of rushing scripts into production was stopped. According to an executive at DR, the Danish public broadcaster, best practices at Hollywood networks like HBO influenced its One Vision policy, including a hands-off approach to writers.93 A result is that Danish storytelling reflects a fundamental of great writing: the authentic specificity required for universal appeal, even if this means large stories about small issues. Here’s how this fundamental of great writing is expressed by the creator of Borgen, Adam Price:

“It’s extremely important to write the story that is based on your own locally-based existence… If you aim for too big an audience, you might find yourself with no audience at all.”94

The second key policy pillar is market performance, with the result that the twinned emphasis on great storytelling linked to market performance delivers globality.95 The results speak: Danish series can attract a 50% domestic market share, more than a million viewers against a 5.8M population. This metric contrasts with the policy decision in Canada, with six times the market, to consider 1 million viewers a hit, using derivative rather than aspirational reasoning because 1 million was about the maximum audience Canadian English-language prime time TV shows were getting when the policy was enacted.96 In Denmark, 200,000-300,000 viewers are not considered enough to justify the cost, time, and resources required to manufacture high-quality scripted TV. Domestic popularity is considered a pretest for export97 and positioned as the result of strong creative, as expressed by DR former cultural head, Mort Hesseldahl:

“The problem with Danish film production was that they went into production too soon before the script is developed…The success here [TV] is that we are working on the script again and again and again… With an annual income one-eighth of the BBC’s, every project has to be a winner.’”98

While financial strategies have long supported the goal of great writing, opportunities for global distribution were also embraced early. The DR ramped up investment in TV drama in 2010 when Netflix first went global. In my MBA classes, I’ve used the term glocal to signify the importance of a local to global perspective that is clear in Denmark’s approach to TV popularity.

In 2014, DR issued a call for ambitious projects, however budgets are not made public in Denmark. Market performance based policy, regardless of budget, seems oppositional to how success is claimed in Canada, which is done by summing the budgets of Canadian series. While Denmark does have broadcast quotas for Danish series, there are no production tax incentives, so there is little reward for rushing into production before the creative is ready.

The public funding mechanism further contributes to global success. As in the case of BBC, in Denmark the audience has long participated in financing the public broadcaster. A media licence is paid by households. Arguably, audience buy-in creates a mutual sense of obligation, trust, and even pride of ownership between supplier and consumer. Financial participation by the audience in public broadcasting echoes, to the extent possible, the direct relationship between creator and audience in a commercial marketplace. The Denmark annual media licence, more than 500 CAD, is about twice BBC’s. In 2022, it is slated to be further embedded as a direct relationship between audience and the public, administered within taxation. In contrast to Denmark and the UK, Canada’s public broadcaster, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is not beholden to its audience. CBC’s customer is not really the Canadian audience; it’s the government of the hour. As such, funding tends to be political and unstable. In this way CBC funding resembles the whole of Canada’s TV policy paradigm, whereby the government has become the most important customer, not Canadian audiences. Research has supported this view, finding that a key skill acquired by Canadian producers is the management of administrative paperwork to facilitate securing government money.99

Top ten shows. Here are the top ten most popular Danish shows according to IMDB:100 The list includes a few shows from other countries released in Danish (Sløborn, Ragnarok, Ófaerð) and a 2020 web series, Sex. Series like Borgen that date to 2010, suggest how long Denmark’s TV industry has been working towards globality. Kamikaze, a new show announced for development by HBO in December 2019, is not on the list. The average Google rating for the first eight shows is 92.5%.

1. The Rain (Netflix, 2018-2020). Google rating: 93%

2. Sløborn (ZDF, 2020– ; note German show released in German and Danish, an official minority language in Germany). Google rating: 93%

3. Bron/Broen (originally DR then remade by FX in Hollywood as The Bridge, 2011–2014). Google rating: 92%

4. Borgen (DR, 2010-2013, revived by Netflix, 2020). Google rating: 91%

5. Ragnarok (Netflix, 2020– ; Norwegian series created by Danish creator of Borgen, Adam Price). Google rating: 93%

6. Rita (TV2 & Netflix, 2012–2020). Google rating: 95%

7. Ófærð (2015– ; Icelandic show originally released also in Danish). Google rating: 94%

8. Forbrydelsen; The Killing (literally translates as The Crime); (DR, 2007–2012; in 2011 remade by AMC). Google rating: 89%

9. When the Dust Settles (DR, 2020–-). Google rating: NA

10. Sex (6 episode web series from DR, 2020– )

Israel: Strength to strength

Adding to its reputation in high tech, Israeli TV has heated up the global TV streaming scene. Similar to Denmark, Israel built towards its showbiz moment for more than a decade. Two Hebrew-language series, both predating the appetite for shows in their native language, paved the way for global hits. The first was HBO’s In Treatment (2008-2010), based on the Israeli series Be’Tipul (HotTV, 2005-2008); many of the original scripts were reportedly translated directly to the HBO version. One of the Be’Tipul creators, Ori Savan, went on to co-create a hit for Showtime, The Affair (2014-2019). A second precursor was Hatufim/Prisoner of War (Ch2, 2010-2012) that became the basis for Homeland (Showtime, 2012-2020); its creator, Gideon Raff, has created more shows for Hollywood cablers and streamers. Today, viewers around the world watch Israeli TV in Hebrew with subtitles, as they do with other international series. Hits on Netflix, Amazon, and other services include Fauda, touted as the first “Netflix original” Israeli series on the service (2015 —, yes Oh network, then Netflix); The Baker and the Beauty (2013—, Ch2 then Amazon); Shtisel (Ch1, 2013—, then Netflix). Shows released during the 2020 pandemic include Tehran (Kan11 and Apple TV+) and Valley of Tears (Kan 11 and HBO Max), which was co-created by Ron Leshem, a Academy Award nominated writer.

What caused TV success by a tiny country of 8.7M more than 12,000km from Hollywood? Four co-dependent factors converged to deliver globality and cause Hollywood Reporter to name Tel Aviv “Hollywood’s new billion dollar sin city.”101 These factors are (1) financial need to succeed; (2) great writing perceived as the route to financial success; (3) persistence over more than a decade; and (4) a culture of entrepreneurialism. As in Denmark, in Israel it is believed that the route to market popularity is great writing achieved via great specificity. Gideon Raff, creator of Hatufim, noting that all of Season 1 of Hatufim cost less than one episode of its offspring, Homeland,102 links universal popularity to local authenticity, a critical point worth repeating from the chapter opening: 

“We have such small budgets that we really have to be unique in how we tell a story… If I want to convince the audience to watch [Hatufim] and not Breaking Bad, I really have to be special… What the most successful Israeli shows have done is be extremely Israeli. Be very, very local and as personal as possible, somehow there you find the universal themes that an international audience can enjoy.”103

Budget challenges and pressure for great writing don’t only apply to Israeli shows requiring expensive military settings. The hit series Shtisel, about the Israeli Jewish Orthodox community, has been described as a powerhouse combo of “radical particularity and radical universality.”104 Keren Margalit, creator of Yellow Peppers (Ch2, 2010-2014), a series about an autistic boy, believes that budget challenges have strengthened writing skills and the sector’s resolve to conquer limitations:

“Israeli creators have made a virtue out of their necessity to make television on a shoestring budget. ‘We don’t have money for anything… If you can’t go wider, if you can’t explode anything or go big with special effects, you need to go inside. To go very very deep and find real characters.  Similarly, because studio space is at a premium in Israel, the majority of series are shot on location, giving the shows a raw, authentic feel.”105

Yellow Peppers has already been remade by BBC, with a second remake in development (as The A Word) with Universal Television and Keshet Studios, the production firm responsible for Hafutim, which became Homeland. Keshet CEO, Avi Nir, explains the success of Yellow Peppers and generally, his company’s success, with the familiar message that great writing equates to large audiences:

“That series [Yellow Peppers] has to be very personal. It’s very emotional… What’s happened to Israeli series in the last decade, is very meaningful. We’ve been able to cross the hurdles of distance and language and to bring these stories across the globe to Hollywood. What is unique about Israeli writing? Why did Israel become such an international player? Israeli writers write from somewhere deep, they want to express something more than just telling a story and they have the ability to tell compelling stories and reach large audiences.”106

An additional element to the strong writing coming from Israel may be a surfeit of great raw material for writing: conflict. Israeli creators have not been reticent to mine the high-stakes political, cultural, and historical conflicts that have commanded the world’s attention. An example is the hit series Fauda (yes Oh network, 2015— and Netflix, 2016—); its title translates from Arabic as chaos and is used by Israeli forces to signify a mission gone wrong. Fauda goes deep into the Arab-Israeli conflict. The New York Times called it the best international show of 2017.107

On the distribution side, similar to Canada’s situation, Hollywood hits historically crowded Israeli screens, resulting in limited space for original TV. Until the mid 1990’s, Israel had only one TV channel and thus extreme scarcity of shelf space for indigenous productions. Now, in the streaming era, Israel, like everywhere, is flooded with Hollywood hits along with hits from around the world. In Israel, as competition to win the battle for attention has further intensified, it is considered a challenge to be overcome by one strategy: hyperlocal writing.

Israeli producers’ need to succeed with global audiences has proven to align with the identical need in Hollywood. Following successful adaptations of Israeli TV series more than a decade ago, Hollywood has embraced Israeli producers and creators in a mutual globality goal: “Israel has emerged as an increasingly rich supplier for American TV executives ravenous for shows that stand out amid the programming glut of peak TV.”108 As the TV market globalized, Israeli producers and creators seized the moment. In 2019, Avi Nir, CEO of Keshet, which now has an LA Studio, described his company’s slate of 11 dramas in development, plus unscripted and new media series. Beauty and The Baker (Channel 2, 2013—) became an instant hit on Amazon. The series was adapted in English, but only lasted one season (ABC, 2020), further underscoring that specificity and authenticity deliver universality. Other shows in Keshet’s development lineup include a police drama, Lincoln (NBC); Our Boys (HBO by In Treatment creator, Hagai Levi, and two other Israeli creators); and When Heroes Fly (Keshet 12), being remade by Netflix as Stockholm. Book adaptations in development include an HBO series based on Ronen Bergman’s best-seller, Rise and Kill First; Michel Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union (CBS); and Bastards with Richard Gere (since cancelled by Apple). Avi Nir sums up Keshet’s success:

“We have had a very good network season…We need to hit that [same] target again next year.”109

Israeli TV success may be characteristic of the nation’s survival amidst a history of winning David and Goliath contests. Entrepreneurialism and making the impossible happen are national characteristics, whether feats are in the arenas of military, agriculture, technology, medicine, or media. In comparison, Canada doesn’t appear to benefit from such grit. In the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness report on 138 economies, Canada’s #1 business challenge was found to be its capacity to innovate, ranked against 16 factors inhibiting success. Notably, for this book, this was closely followed by Canada’s second major pain point, crippling bureaucracy. In contrast, for Israel, innovation capacity ranks near the bottom of the list of factors that inhibit success.110

Top ten shows. Below are the top ten Israeli series on imdb sorted by popularity.111 The eight shows counted have an average Google rating of 91%. Missing from this list are such series as In Treatment (HBO 2008-2010, adaptation of Be’Tipul) and Yellow Peppers (Ch2 2010-2014; BBC-2016). A new series, Beauty Queen of Jerusalem, was announced for development in 2020. It stars the leads of Fauda and Baker and The Beauty and will be shot in Hebrew, English, Arabic and Ladino.112

 

1. Absentia (list mistake, while some shooting locations, a Hollywood show)

2. Fauda (Netflix’ first original Israeli series, 2016—) Google rating 92%

3. Tehran (AppleTV, 2020—) Google rating 89% (While identified as an Israeli show, reportedly shot on location in Athens, Greece, underscoring that production is a discrete value chain phase)113

4. Shtisel (Ch1, 2013 & Netflix 2018—) Google rating: 96%

5. The Baker and the Beauty (Amazon Prime, 2013 —) Google rating: 95%

6. Euphoria (Hot 3, 2012-2013 & HBO, 2020—) Google rating: 77%

7. When Heroes Fly (Keshet 12 & Netflix 2018) Google rating: 95%

8. The Grave (Keshet12, 2019 —) Google rating: 92%

9. Kufulim/Prisoners of War (Ch2 2010-2012, Homeland on Showtime, 2012-2020) Google rating: 87%

10. Hostages (Ch10 & Netflix, 2013—) Google rating 92%

Korea: K-Drama 

Korea, with a population of 52M, is a leading global exporter of cultural products. How this happened will be explored in four parts: (1) review of the media phenomenon known as the Korean Wave; (2) zoom in on K-drama; (3) examination of policies that have incentivized globality; and (4) per the previous discussions, a list of Korean hits.

Exports of Korean cultural products surged in the 1990’s. The Korean Wave included music, movies, TV, video games, animation, new media, fashion, beauty products, and even cuisine, all of which attained global popularity and in turn, increased tourism. The Korean Wave spread to North America and Europe, boosted by expat Korean communities and by social media, especially YouTube. Korean music became known as K-Pop and Korean TV as K-drama. K-Pop burst onto the scene in 2012 when singer Psy’s video, “Gangnam Style,” went viral around the world and became the first YouTube video to exceed a billion views. Adding to the song’s cool factor were its lyrics about Seoul’s fancy Gangnam district, a fashion destination akin to Beverly Hills, California. In the wake of “Gangnam Style,” views of Korean videos tripled to 24 billion by 2016 and led to the formation of KCON, a one-day festival devoted to K-Pop. KCON has since become a week-long convention and spread to 8 more countries as diverse as France, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates. During the 2020 pandemic, K-CON went online, not only on YouTube, but also on Shopee, an Asian ecommerce platform. YouTube’s open export platform proved to be such an accelerant to K-Pop that Sun Lee, Korea music partnerships at YouTube, attributed K-Pop’s success to the platform’s globality. K-Pop idols include talented teenagers from across Canada, such as Henry Lau, Somi, Tablo, Sera, G.NA, Kevin Moon, Daisy and more. On YouTube, Canada even surpassed Korea’s record of 80% of views outside the country to become the #1 export country on the platform with 90% views outside the country. In addition to YouTube, other services such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Tik Tok further amplified the Korean Wave. Aligned with web.2 interactivity, the overall social media presence of the Korean Wave has become so strong that it is known as Hallyuwood or Hallyu 2.0, which includes any screen media that is digitally distributed including TV, video games, and ecommerce.

Korean Wave TV became known as K-Drama. Besides being globally popular on its own, it further enhanced the popularity of Korean music, fashion, and other cultural products. K-Dramas include a wide range of genres such as love stories, romantic comedies, sitcoms, character driven dramas, cop shows, mysteries, fantasy adventure, and historical fiction, known as sageuk or fusion sageu. A genre that is popular in Korea, but not in North America, is the web series, short scripted drama series that are often distributed on YouTube. Examples of these  series are Idol Drama Operation Team (KBS, 2017) and Pongdang Pongdang Love (MBC & Naver TV Cast, 2015).

Global streaming services, notably Netflix, have embraced Korean wave longform TV, distributing and/or making deals to finance TV series. Stranger (tvN & Netflix, 2017-2020), was renewed and was named, by the New York Times, the 10th best show of 2017. Love alarm (Netflix, 2019) premiered as one of Netflix’s highest rated shows and was renewed for a second season. Arthdal Chronicles (tvN & Netflix, 2019) was also renewed for a second season. Kingdom (2019-2020) was reportedly Netflix’ first original Korean series. K-dramas on Netflix include Crash landing on you (tvN & Netflix, 2019-2020); Hi Bye, Mama! (tvN & Netflix, 2020); Itaewon Class (tvN & Netflix, 2020); Mr. Sunshine (CJ E&M & Netflix, 2018); and When the Camellia Blooms (KBS & Netflix, 2019).114

The February 2020 sweep of the Academy Awards by the Korean movie, Parasite, toppled long-standing Oscar barriers to foreign language films. Parasite was the first film ever to win both Best International Feature and Best Picture, and the first non-English-language film ever to win the Best Picture award.  Parasite also won Oscars for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (by director Bong Joon-Ho and Han Jin-won). The 2020 Oscar accolades were preceded by prestigious awards from British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA); Cannes Film Festival; Golden Globes; and Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

The Parasite phenomenon benchmarked a decade of growing global audiences for K-Drama. As discussed, similarly to TV from Denmark and Israel, the embrace of this complex and compelling film underscored the enthusiasm of audiences around the world to “overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles”115 as proclaimed by director Bong Joon-Ho in one of his many acceptance speeches at the Oscars. The Korean Wave stayed strong through the pandemic. The biggest film around the world during the pandemic summer of 2020 was Peninsula, a Korean movie about survivors of a mysterious outbreak. Peninsula garnered more than $48 million in box office receipts in one month in Asia, where movie theatres opened after Covid-19 was considered contained. 116 Consistent with this viewing trend, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’ chief content officer, said in April 2021, on the podcast Smartless, that U.S. viewing in Korean had leapt 100% year over year. Further indicating the prestige of Korean TV, a 2021 top series on the legacy network, ABC, The Good Doctor (executive produced by Canadian showrunner, David Shore, and mostly filmed in British Columbia ) — is based on a 2013 Korean series of the same name. 

Policy has played a key role in the emergence of Korea’s journey to become a leading exporter of cultural products. The deep roots of policy designed to increase global soft power go back to the mid twentieth century. In 1948, Kim Gu, leader of the Korean independence movement and president of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, wrote this in his autobiography, Baekbeom Ilji:

“The only thing that I desire in infinite quantity is the power of a noble culture… the power of culture both makes us happy and gives happiness to others.”117

Korean strategies to attain global influence did not gain traction until the mid 1990’s, when U.S. movies were dominating Korean theatres by about 80%, while Korean movies were getting only a 16% audience share.118 The government noticed this discrepancy and also observed the big money in cultural products, specifically that the box office for Jurassic Park had surpassed sales for Hyundai cars. This led to establishing the Korean Content Agency (KOCCA) to administer strategic initiatives in partnership with Export-Import Bank of Korea, charged with providing loans to exporting media companies.

Engineering export has taken decades. In 1999, the “Basic Law for Promoting Cultural Industries” established federal support for “co-production with foreign countries, marketing and advertising of Korean pop culture through broadcasting and the Internet, and the dissemination of domestic cultural products to foreign markets.”119 As social media and digital distribution took hold, public money for cultural products was increased. The export framework was ongoing when, in 2014 the government allocated 1% of its annual budget to cultural industries and dedicated a $1 billion fund to nurture popular culture.120 On the export side, the partnership to increase Korea’s global competitiveness includes capacity-building initiatives such as management consulting for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME), and includes export training. In 2017, KOCCA was rolled into its governing body, Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism. In alignment with the export goal, the “About Us” page of Korea’s KBS America webpage touts its mission as a “leadership role in spreading Korean Wave in Americas… conduct channel expansion and content business in Americas.”

Korean policy doesn’t merely encourage commercial success on the world-stage: It requires export market validation to trigger public funding.122 A domestic distributor covers about half the budget.  A producer must find the rest of the money with the stipulation that this must include a foreign financier. This is opposite to Canada where funding is triggered by a gatekeeper who is a domestic linear broadcaster with little vested interest in market viability. This market-driven aspect of Korea TV policy has been noticed in a Canadian report. Its series of case studies on international funding models notes how Korea operationalizes its commitment to export, with could the operative word (my bold):

“A model similar to the one put forth by KOCCA and Eximbank could benefit the Canadian content industry. The model could inform how CMF approaches project-based funding…  with financial incentives and additional investment provided by export-oriented partners.”123

On the distribution side, there are more useful comparisons to Canada. Korea broadcasting has an oligopolistic structure, similar to that of North America, with an important difference being that dominant players in Korea are public broadcasters. The mostly public structure has been analysed to have had significant impact during digital shift because it resulted in early adoption of streaming distribution technology by legacy public broadcasters. Being public, they did not have a profit motive and thus little resistance to cannibalizing their extant linear model.124 This delivered an agility that strengthened the position of domestic players because they were able to transform along with the disruption and aggregate domestic audiences on any screen (N-screen):

“OTT services in Korea became an extension of established players’ offerings and part of their N-screen strategy, further entrenching their market position. In the United States, by contrast, services such as Netflix had gained a significant market share of viewership and scale economies before the traditional audiovisual providers woke up to the threat.”125

Korean production practices further motivate market performance. Compared to North America, Korean TV is so celebrity driven that half, or more, of a budget may be paid to the lead actor. This contrasts with Hollywood style TV, where a trend has been to hire unknowns who then become famous if the show is a hit. There are reports that Korean production companies, who must finance half of production expenses including minor actors, writers, directors, and below-the-line expenses from catering to location fees, have been unable to pay expenses and salaries during a shoot, resulting in shutdowns. Simply put: market success is a must-have for Korean producers. 

There are additional production pressures. A Korean TV shoot can have a grueling schedule, known as the live shoot model. This means that two episodes are consecutively aired, so the next two must be produced in the remaining 5 days of the week. There is even a word for actors’ mini-sleeps during production, jjok-jam or side-sleeping, because actors are on constant call. An advantage of the live shoot model is that it enables real-time feedback to the writing process, which adds further pressure to writers, directors, and production crews. Scriptwriting practices also differ. Often the work is done by a single writer, rather than the collaborative North American writers’ room model. Reportedly, up to 90% of Korean scripters are female;126 while estimates of female scriptwriters in Hollywood range from 13-19%.127 Some Korean scripters have achieved fame and influence, for example the Hong sisters (My Girl, You’re Beautiful) and Kim Eun-sook (Lovers in Paris, Descendants of the Sun). Well-known male writers include Park Ji-eun (My Husband Got a Family) and Park Ji-eun (Crash Landing on You).

Top ten shows. Below is the list of the top ten Korean series from imdb.com sorted by popularity:128 Given the popularity of Korean animation, the list includes three animated series. The average Google rating of the seven K-Dramas is 97%.

1. It’s okay to not be okay (tvN & Netflix, 2020—). Google rating: 98%

2. Crash Landing on you (tvN & Netflix, 2019-2020). Google rating: 97%

3. Kingdom (Netflix’ first original Korean series, 2019 —). Google rating: 95%

4. Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir (animation co-production: France/TF1-Korea/EBS1 co-production, 2015—).

5. Flower of Evil (tvN and throughout SE Asia, 2020—). Google rating: 98%

6. Backstreet Rookie (SBS-TV & Lifetime, 2020—). Google rating: 96%

7. Itaewon Class (JTBC & Netflix, 2020—). Google rating: 97%

8. The King: Eternal Monarch (SBS & Netflix 2020—). Google rating: 97%

9. The Boondocks (list error, U.S. adult animation, HBO, 2005-2014 and 2020-).

10. The God of High School (manwha/comic-based and has a video game: Naver Webtoon 2011— then Tokyo MX & AT-X (2020—)

Canada: Comparables 

Is Canada participating in the global goldrush? Below is the comparable imdb list to that of the UK, Denmark, Israel, and Korea:129

1. The 100 (CW, 2014—). NOT CANADIAN, shot in Vancouver, B.C.

2. Supernatural (WB & CW, 2005-2020). NOT CANADIAN, shot in Vancouver, B.C.

3. Criminal Minds (CBS, Netflix 2005-2020). NOT CANADIAN

4. Vikings (History, 2013—). Canada-Ireland co-production, shot in Ireland: Google rating 96%

5. Schitt’s Creek (CBC then POP to Netflix, 2015-2020). Google rating 95%

6. Doctor Who (BBC, 2005—). NOT CANADIAN

7. The X Files (Fox, 1993-2002 and 2016-2018). NOT CANADIAN, partly shot in Vancouver, B.C.

8. The Expanse (Syfy 2015-2018 & Amazon Prime (2019—). NOT CANADIAN, shot in Toronto, ON.

9. Heartland (CBC, 2007—). Google rating: 97%

10. Smallville (WB then CW, 2001-2011). NOT CANADIAN, shot in Vancouver, B.C.

This list appears to lay bare Canada’s TV policy strength (production) and weakness (development). Seven of the ten shows (The 100, Supernatural, Criminal Minds, Doctor Who, The X Files, The Expanse, Smallville) are not Canadian created. They are Hollywood shows shot in Canada, mostly in Vancouver, British Columbia. The X Files, while recently revived, dates back nearly thirty years. This seems further proof of the main argument of this book, that TV policy has been based on “location location location” rather than “audience audience audience” and that manufacturing is a separate value chain phase that does not enhance a nation’s cultural brand or soft power. An eighth show (Vikings) is an Ireland-Canada co-production, but it was created and shot in Ireland, not in Canada.

The remaining two series are Canadian created: Heartland and Schitt’s Creek. Heartland, on the air since 2007, is not prime time TV. Its genre is family, aired on linear TV at 7 pm (or earlier) in the prime access slot. Canada developed strength in family drama due to a loophole in the policy framework that encouraged the creation of shows that could fill the 7-8 prime access time slot, so that 8-11 could be preserved for Hollywood hits. This resulted in market-driven success in a somewhat unique genre.130 Schitt’s Creek was co-created by Hollywood based Canadian creator, actor, director, Eugene Levy, and his son, Dan Levy. This underscores the value of hiring the best possible Canadian creative(s), regardless of where they live, and strengthens the case that development costs would be a small upcharge compared to the potential revenues and soft-power of a hit. The Schitt’s Creek finale, in April 2020, drew a Canadian audience of 1.23M, largest in the show’s history, which over time had averaged 868,000.131 As discussed, when the series streamed, it swept the 2020 Emmy awards and became a trending show on Netflix Canada and not insignificantly, as discussed, this level of domestic market success followed its global popularity.

However, the above imdb list does not reflect a full picture of Canadian TV being distributed on global streamers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and others. Ten of these shows are listed below (in alphabetical order); their average Google rating is 95%. Two observations on the second list leap out at me, both of which underscore this book’s central argument: The case for globality.

Alias Grace (CBC & Netflix, 2017). Google rating: 94%

Anne with an E (CBC & Netflix, 2017-2019). Google rating: 98% (Family Drama)

Being Erica (CBC & BBC Worldwide & Netflix, 2009-2011). Google rating: 95%

Corner Gas (CTV, Crave & Amazon Prime, 2004-2009). Google rating: 95%

Degrassi: Next Class (Family Channel & Netflix, 2017-2019). Google rating: 94% (Family drama and notably, the last of a hit series of Degrassi seasons since 1979)

Kim’s Convenience (CBC & Netflix, with some territories excluded, 2016—). Google rating: 97%

Letterkenny (Crave & Hulu, 2016—). Google rating: 95%

Mr. D (CBC then Netflix then Hulu, 2012-2018). Google rating 92%

Orphan Black (Space & BBC America then Netflix and Amazon Prime, 2013-207). Google rating: 96%

Trailer Park Boys (Showcase & Netflix, 2014—). Google rating: 95%

Firstly, this second list suggests a branding problem with Canadian TV.  The label “Canadian content,” which, frankly, references administrative paperwork, may be inhibiting audience recognition of Canadian TV, even when it does succeed on the domestic or world stage, on a par with British TV, Danish TV, Israeli TV, Korean TV, and hits from many other countries. I noticed this problem with Orphan Black and wrote about it in Playback: “Is it time to rebrand Canadian TV?” It is clear that the answer to this question is yes: As Canadian TV! More about how to rebrand Canadian content in Chapter 7.

Secondly, the list adds further gravitas to my assertion that, while the policy framework is outdated, Canadian creativity is strong. Talented Canadian creators and producers, who are the players in the value chain who do need to succeed, are reaching the global market despite an outdated policy framework that works against them. Kim’s Convenience is a notable example.  Despite the show having been renewed for a sixth season by the Canadian network, it was reported in Playback on March 8, 2021 that the show essentially cancelled itself because it could no longer guarantee world-class creative. Townsend’s article quoted producer Ivan Fecan: “Authenticity of storytelling is at the centre of the success of Kim’s Convenience… Our co-creators confirmed they were moving on… Given their departure, we have come to the difficult conclusion that we cannot deliver another season of the same heart and quality that has made the show so special.” These words are precisely aligned with the strategy of the countries reviewed in this chapter: strong writing as the key to universality — and therefore to popularity in both domestic and international audiences.

In concluding this section, the policy approaches of all four countries, despite differing in the details, are characterized by the same goal: globality. In the UK, Denmark, and Korea this seems the result of strategic policy, while the reason for Israeli success appears closer to the Hollywood ethos, an implicit entrepreneurial DNA. Nevertheless, the flow of money in all four countries preserves value chain linkage between development and distribution that incentivizes popularity with large audiences. In Denmark, domestic market success of up to a 50% share predicts export potential. In contrast to Canada’s framework, Korea requires export market validation to qualify for public subsidies. Across all four countries, the best strategy to achieve globality is considered to be compelling storytelling — with the qualification that local specificity is the secret sauce that causes writing to resonate universally.