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SBS: The Dawn of a New Golden Age

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Every revolution that brings an era to its end also marks the coming of a new age. When the Supreme Court ruled against the eight major studios' block booking practices in 1948, the studio system and Hollywood's Golden Age came to an end. Another court ruling in Korea, however, paved the way for what would become an unforgettable Golden Age for Korean television. When the government merged TV stations KBS and TBC in the early 80s, leading broadcaster MBC found itself without one of its major rivals for the better part of the decade. Despite the downward spiral in quality caused by the lack of competition, MBC's greatest strength was its Hollywood-style studio system: the channel employed over 250 actors, including some of the best and most popular stars in the country, and made use of the experience accumulated by veteran producers and writers under the MBC family. Until the dawn of the 90s, MBC ruled the airwaves, seldom facing stiff competition from rival KBS.

In July 1990, the government decided to allow private broadcasters the opportunity to launch commercial TV stations in Korea for the first time ever, another important step in the country's democratization process. Several companies applied to fill the third slot in the Korean TV world, and a group formed by Taeyoung Corp. and five other affiliates was given the green light for what eventually became Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) on November 14, 1991. The station started small, broadcasting only in the capital and Gyeonggi, Chungcheong, and Kangwon Provinces. SBS aired its first program on December 9, a ten hour marathon entitled The Birth of SBS TV which involved a who's who of the TV business (including people from USA's NBC and Japan's Nippon TV). Few people expected that little station on Channel 6 would become a major national broadcaster and bring about one of the most important periods in Korean TV history.

As a commercial station, SBS had an advertising advantage and was able to offer better financial opportunities not only to stars, but also to writers and producers. The new station instantly started an aggressive campaign to sign the top stars. MBC's studio system was essentially doomed with PDs and writers defecting in droves, the first big one being veteran writer Kim Soo Hyun (Trap of Youth, Love & Ambition, and What is Love?) who jumped ship in the early 90s. To counter SBS's ambitious start, MBC started investing more in big projects. When the legendary Eyes of Dawn started broadcasting right around the time of SBS's formation, the Golden Age of Korean dramas was officially born. SBS's first few years weren't easy, particularly because the station could not cover the entire country. Still, between 1992 and 1993, a half dozen shows passed 35% in ratings, highlighted by the channel's first serious hit, How's Your Husband? with Lee Young Ae, Lee Mi Sook, and Yoo Dong Geun, which recorded an impressive 48%. But the station's big breakthrough came in 1995. After assimilating several smaller broadcasting companies, SBS finally became a nationwide network.

1995 was an incredible year for SBS, both in terms of quantity and quality. Auntie Ok won veteran PD Sung Joon Gi a Best Producer Award at the 32nd Baeksang Awards, and the political drama Korea Gate - an obvious answer to MBC's "Republic dramas" - also did very well. This was an amazing period for television. MBC's period drama about the Korean Diaspora in Uzbekistan, Kareisky, and KBS's fabulous historical drama Jang Nok Soo were both on the airwaves. But neither could compare to SBS's card in that timeslot - The Sandglass. Mixing politics, melodrama, action, great acting, and the most impressive re-enactment of the Gwangju Massacre ever seen in Korea at the time, the drama recorded a peak rating of 64.5%, the third highest of all time, and launched its leading trio of Choi Min Soo, Ko Hyun Jung, and Park Sang Won into stardom. The Sandglass stole the show at the 31st Baeksang Awards, bringing home 6 prizes including Best Screenplay, Director, Drama, Leading Actor, and Supporting Actor, not to mention the all important Dae Sang (grand award).

The period between 1995 and 1998 was marked by a few hits, but the Financial Crisis led to an extreme drop in advertising revenues, which forced the channel to adopt new policies, not all of them positive. SBS slowly got back on track, focusing more on the younger audience with hits like Tomato, Happy Together, and KAIST. SBS also started seriously challenging KBS with the advent of the Korean Wave in 2000. With shows like Beautiful Days, Glass Slipper, Lovers in Paris, and Something Happened in Bali, SBS put a much bigger focus on the visuals and star power than its rivals and extended the trend of Korean dramas to Southeast Asia. Many of these big hits were partially shot overseas, fueling the popularity of Korean dramas, but also leading to some complaints of predictable storylines and too much reliance on over-the-top melodrama. The station also scored a few hits in a genre usually associated with its competitors: historical dramas. First with the girl-power palace histrionics of Ladies of the Palace, then with the macho heroics of The Rustic Era, the channel brought back some of the older viewers it lost over the years.

Today's SBS is an interesting mixture of conflicting philosophies. Some of the elements which led to its decline post-The Sandglass remain, but recent dramas like Fashion 70s, Alone in Love, Bad Family, and the Friday dramas have brought new winds of change. It will be interesting to see which road SBS chooses to follow. Both MBC and KBS learned several good lessons when they had to deal with declining ratings. Now it's time for the youngster to show if it has matured enough to learn from its mistakes and live up to its potential.

Here's five English Subtitled dramas which prove how good SBS can be:

The Sandglass (1995)

One of the classics. Writer Song Ji Na and PD Kim Jong Hak had worked together before in the 80s, most notably on Eyes of Dawn, which is considered by many viewers to be the best K-Drama of all time. When the duo moved from MBC to SBS in the early 90s, many wondered if they would be able to make their magic work again. It took a couple of years, but they eventually hit gold. The Sandglass represents everything that is great about the Golden Age. It is a period drama that uses its background intelligently, never letting the history overshadow the main story. It is a melodrama - and a very touching one at that - but the makers never forget that viewers have to care about the characters before they can willingly shed a tear.

Just like in their previous masterpiece, Song and Kim used film-quality production values, not simply to add luster, but to aid the narrative: the Gwangju Massacre scene in The Sandglass remains one of the most realistic, devastatingly powerful, and unforgettable moments in all of Korean TV history. And then there are the stars: Choi Min Soo, who became an icon of young Korean men; Ko Hyun Jung, who rose to stardom after this drama; Park Sang Won, who added another super hit to his long list of successes; and even Lee Jung Jae, who had just a couple of lines in the drama, but made an impression on the entire industry. The Sandglass is pure magic and the best Korean drama available on DVD right now. Yes, that means you must see this. Now.

All In (2003)

With a super cast (Lee Byung Hun, Song Hye Kyo, Hur Jun Ho, Ji Seong, Park Sol Mi, and many more) and that wild mix of different genres which made The Sandglass famous, All In was SBS's big return to blockbuster dramas (good ones, that is) after spending years in obscurity. Combined with great writing (by Choi Wan Gyu of Jumong) and top notch acting - especially from Hur Jun Ho and Lee Byung Hun - this drama moves from Las Vegas to Korea without losing a beat. Gambling, action, and melodrama, all with great style and panache - blockbuster dramas haven't been this good since the mid-90s. This one certainly went all in. And won.

My Love Toram (2005)

The world of short dramas is a mixture of little misunderstood masterpieces and many lazy exercises in schedule filler. My Love Toram belongs to the former, with stunning performances from lead Ha Hee Ra as a blind woman and her best friend, the dog who becomes her window to the outside world. Distancing itself from the melodramatic escapades of Disney Channel specials and Korean commercial films of the 90s (like A Man Wagging His Tail), this little drama touches viewers without pulling their heartstrings. I hope the dog continues acting after this great performance. Seriously.

Fashion 70s (2005)

When PD Lee Jae Gyu of Damo left MBC and announced plans for a period drama on SBS, many people were worried. But through his usual cinematic humanism, fine performances from all involved (particularly Chun Jeong Myung and Kim Min Jung) and a good script, PD Lee managed to take advantage of the channel's strengths (better production values and shooting conditions) while avoiding its pitfalls (predictable storylines, too many crowd-pleasers focused on star power). Although Fashion 70s loses some of its fire in the middle, we are still dealing with one of the best blockbuster-type dramas of the last few years. The first four episodes are absolutely must see, perhaps the closest a drama has gotten to recapturing Eyes of Dawn's magic (albeit for a short time) in over half a decade.

Alone in Love (2006)

Korea's divorce rate is one of the highest in the world, and Korean dramas seem to enjoy this peculiar record a lot. For a while, it seemed like half the dramas targeted at middle-aged housewives dealt with a couple trying to marry despite their parents' disagreement, while the other half showed their road to divorce. And just like marriage, Korean dramas take the divorce issue a little too lightly more often than not. That is why seeing a little gem like Alone in Love puts things in perspective. Adapted from one of the late, great Nozawa Hisashi's novels, Alone in Love deals with two people who recently ended their marriage, but quickly realize that bringing your seal to the courtroom does not exactly end relationships. With an almost surreal calm and beautiful dialogue, this drama, directed by Han Ji Seung of A Day in his TV drama debut, manages to defy every single expectation the dreaded genre brings to the table. Aside from the very fine soundtrack and the film-like quality, Alone in Love shows the maturation of Son Yae Jin as a real actress, not just a pretty face. And, if King and The Clown was not enough, it proves Gam Woo Sung has a ton of talent. Alone in Love is one of those memorable dramas which, as the trailer mentions, starts in your mind when the show ends. And then it's hard, very hard, to forget.

Published September 9, 2006

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  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
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