K-Drama-Rama: How the Global Streaming Boom Ignited Demand for Content From Asia

Where there’s a yearning for content, there’s a streaming service to meet it. And never has the invisible hand of the market been more evident than in the organic growth of platforms delivering content from South Korea and other Asian countries to viewers well beyond the continent’s borders.

Rakuten Viki is one such streamer that has seen incredible growth during the past few years, with viewers logging on everywhere from Latin America to the Mediterranean to Australia. Sam Wu, CEO of Viki, which is the streaming arm of Japanese retail giant Rakuten, spoke with Variety‘s “Strictly Business” podcast about the company’s growth and why Korean dramas, in particular, are resonating with viewers.

“The U.S. is our biggest market by audience. But we’re global,” Wu says. “We have users in North America, South America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and India. So we really see this fandom growing, not just here in the U.S., which is really strong in terms of the audience reception, but we’re really seeing it grow everywhere around the world.”

South Korea’s drama series, known as K-dramas, are particularly popular — as Netflix discovered last year when its investment in original content from Korea delivered with the global phenomenon “Squid Game.” The growing audience for K-dramas is a sign of a maturing entertainment industry and production infrastructure. Nevertheless, K-dramas punch above their weight, Wu observes.

“It’s easy to fall in love with K-dramas,” Wu says. “The stories are about life, about love — things that people can really connect with. And the production format is really high-quality, it lends itself to be easily enjoyed.”

Wu explains the free and paid streaming business models that Viki uses to maintain a steady funnel of users. He also discusses the investment in tech tools to help build fan communities with Watch Party features, simultaneous commentary and other features. He also details the incredible level of commitment from ardent fans that allows Viki to overcome the language hurdles within the Asian diaspora, as Viki users voluntarily create subtitles for hundreds of titles in multiple languages.

Moreover, Wu credits the passionate Viki user base as the single-biggest factor in driving buzz and sampling of the various Viki channels and services.

“We truly leverage (our) community to be the advocates that help share the content,” Wu says. “Outside of Viki, we’ve built a strong social media presence with followers across social media. People will tend to highly engage and tag their friends and share and also post and repost. So we leverage that quite heavily as a way for us to get the word out there. It’s authentic and something that really scales quite well, because people discover content now through word-of-mouth and their friends.”

“Strictly Business” is Variety’s weekly podcast featuring conversations with industry leaders about the business of media and entertainment. New episodes debut every Wednesday and can be downloaded on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher and SoundCloud, among other podcast platforms. Click here to subscribe to Variety‘s free “Strictly Business” newsletter featuring media earnings, financial and investment news and more.

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