From ‘Masked Singer’ to ‘Good Doctor,’ Korean Formats Take Hold on U.S. Screens

Will Thorne

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Accepting his award for original screenplay at this year’s Oscars, director Bong Joon Ho triumphantly declared,  “This is a very first Oscar to South Korea.” Little did he know that the second, third and fourth were swiftly coming his way on a night that saw “Parasite” make history.

Combine that with the fact that two of the biggest shows on U.S. television are based on Korean properties, namely “The Masked Singer” and “The Good Doctor,” and that a milestone was reached in the music world when BTS became the first K-pop group to perform at the Grammys, and it’s clear that a change is in the air. “Awareness of Korean entertainment in the United States is higher than it has ever been,” says actor-producer Daniel Dae Kim. That awareness has increased the volume of content moving between South Korea and the U.S., and altered its flow.

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“If you look at the impact of Korean music, in the form of K-pop, and Korean cinema and television in the last few years, they are becoming not only the most sought-after IP but also the most imitated, which, as they say, is the greatest form of flattery,” Kim says.

In 2015, “The Good Doctor” became one of the first scripted shows based on a Korean format to make it to American TV. Kim, who exec produces the series and brought it to Sony Pictures Television via his company 3AD, admits that selling “The Good Doctor” at first proved a challenge (every single network he pitched to passed during the show’s first development cycle). However, the medical drama was recently renewed for its fourth season and is one of the top-five-gaining shows across the major networks after seven days of delayed viewing.

The Masked Singer,” meanwhile, continues in its third season to reign as television’s highest-rated non-sports program, averaging a 3.4 among adults 18-49 in live-plus-seven. And plenty more Korean IP is flooding in on the development front. Fox recently ordered another competition series from “Masked Singer” judge Ken Jeong based on a Korean show called “I Can See Your Voice,” and is collaborating with Sterling K. Brown on “Live,” a drama based on the Korean cop show of the same name. HBO is working with directors Bong and Adam McKay to adapt “Parasite” as a limited series, and it was reported in late January that Showtime is developing an hourlong drama called “Memory,” inspired by the Korean format from Studio Dragon, a division of “Parasite” producer CJ ENM.

According to David Park, a TV lit partner at UTA, the achievement of “Parasite” will likely only amplify the recent surge. “What ‘Parasite’ winning does is create extra value commercially,” he says. “It makes business sense to go after Korean formats, to work with Korean creatives, to create Korean content that’s global in appeal. As opposed to people viewing it as taking chances or risks, it makes it more mainstream.”

As for the unscripted space, Fox alternative entertainment and specials president Rob Wade says there will be more content to come, as well as a concerted push by Korean producers to work directly with U.S. buyers.

“We’ve kept a really close eye on Southeast Asia and Korea in particular for a number of reasons — first of all because they are real risk-takers in their production and their buying. They push the envelope,” Wade says. “It’s a great place for a buyer to go, and it’s going to be really interesting now, because of what’s happened with ‘The Masked Singer.’ I think that those bigger production companies in Korea and in Asia are going to create more direct relationships with the broadcasters, which will change the dynamic of how things are bought and sold.”

Kim agrees that the push from Korean conglomerates like CJ Group, whose vice chairman Miky Lee had the final say during the “Parasite” best picture speech, seems like “the obvious next step.” 

“This new dynamic is something that I’m seeing happen more and more,” Kim says. “When Korean shows are being conceived, they’re being conceived with the potentiality that they might be exported. Whereas before, Korean companies were considered a seller in the United States, now they want to become producers, and that’s a natural evolution of the recognition of the value of their content.”

The sight of Bong and his “Parasite” cast flooding the stage will live long in the memory for many, and its impact could be just as enduring.

“The halo effect of a ‘Parasite’ win affects all cultural exports, in terms of film and TV,” says Kim. “It puts a higher level of scrutiny on the Korean entertainment business, a higher level of perceived quality. It gets U.S. studios asking, ‘What else do they have, so we can be ahead of the curve?’” 

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