The rise of YouTube in Korea poses a dilemma for content houses.
The platform lowers the entry barrier for producers, spurring competition and interest, but also allows hobbyists to vie with professional productions.
"We are living in an era where a 9-year-old kid can generate and distribute online content and make a business out of it,” Lee Min-seok, co-founder and CEO of web content production startup Whynot Media, said in an interview with The Investor.
“The question is what content we need to sell, how to brand them and reach out to more viewers.”
Whynot Media, founded in 2016, is one of the pioneers of web drama production in that it was the first company to focus on romances with ordinary people at the center of the stories, instead of on what was dominating the market then -- basically, stories that were just vehicles for K-pop celebrities.
The company is also one of the first players to suggest new revenue models for drama production firms, given the flexibility of the short-form genre.
One example was “Secret Crushes,” which met with great success in 2016 by attracting 100 million viewers combined on various new media platforms, including Facebook, YouTube and Naver TV Cast.
In part inspired by webtoons, web dramas first came to the fore in 2015 with content featuring top K-pop artists. “EXO Next Door” depicted a surreal experience in which an ordinary person develops a relationship with the nine-piece Korean boy band. It was one of four web series -- all featuring K-pop stars -- that reached 10 million viewers in 2015.
The explosive success, however, led to a recurring theme among early-stage web dramas involving top-tier K-pop celebrities.
“The narrative, plot structure and production infrastructure of these dramas were no different from conventional TV series, except that they were shorter,” said Lee, who worked on his first web drama production project in 2012.
Lee co-founded Whynot Media four years later and has since been working to turn the tide.
With its new releases, such as “Always a Boy Friend, Never a Boyfriend” and “Office Watch,” Whynot Media has entered countries like China, Japan and Indonesia. In the meantime, web dramas have evolved to not only be a test bed for budding talent, but also a gateway to understanding Korean culture.
Lee believes web dramas are an irreversible trend sweeping the media industry worldwide.
From a viewer’s perspective, web dramas are a more appealing medium. People nowadays have less time to sit in front of televisions. Instead, they watch dramas on a medium they are more used to -- mobile phones.
“Contemporary life is highly segmented, but short-form content can still fill in the small segments,” he said.
These trends are also making it easier for web content production firms to diversify their revenue channels. Content producers stand a good chance of being able to sell their intellectual property to entities around the world like networks or over-the-top service providers. For Whynot Media, revenue from IP sales exceeds that from advertisements, he said.
Whynot Media is now waiting for its next chapter, partly backed by a combined 10.5 billion won ($8.9 million) in series B round funding that will be used to hire more staff and further expand overseas.
“Some ask why we don’t just focus on the romance genre. My team wants to break into new genres and make them a success, a challenge that deserves more opportunities and respect,” Lee said.
By Son Ji-hyoung (email@example.com