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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Spectacular Cities, Speculative Storytelling: Korean TV Dramas and the Selling of Place

  • Author(s): Oh, Youjeong
  • Advisor(s): Hsing, You-tien
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the relationships between popular culture, cities, and gendered social discourses, with a focus on contemporary Korean television dramas. Existing studies about Korean dramas have relied upon economic and cultural analysis to, in effect, celebrate their vibrant export to overseas markets and identify why they are popular in other East Asian countries. This study expands the scope into spatial and social realms by examining cities' drama-sponsorship and drama-driven social activities. Deploying popular culture as an analytical category directly shaping and transforming material, urban and social conditions, I argue that the cultural industry of Korean television dramas not only functions as its own, dynamic economic sector, but also constitutes urban processes and social discourses of contemporary South Korea.

Drawing upon interdisciplinary methods including ethnography and content analysis, I examine Korean television dramas from the multiple vantage points of producers, audience, storytelling, and city-sponsorship, and elucidate why and how these four arenas are deeply intertwined. Their mutual entanglement, in turn, requires us to see Korean television dramas as more than just commercial entertainment; they become a medium through which we can contemplate labor conditions in the cultural industry, the political economies of development in regional cities, and gender politics in Korea.

I argue that the popularity of Korean dramas across Asia has turned the drama industry into an extremely speculative field into which numerous producers jump and gamble for the highly elusive mega-hit. Individual chapters address the ways in which the speculative nature of the industry has conditioned and shaped (1) the "last-minute, live production," a collection of practices designed to reduce labor costs by minimizing filming dates, thus leading to extreme labor exploitation of workers, (2) active interactions between production and consumption as live production allows for the revision of ongoing narratives in response to viewer reactions to previous episodes, with the effects of encouraging consumers' extensive discussions about dramas and even allowing female viewers produce their own virtual, social, and physical spaces, (3) addictive storytelling of dramas in order to quickly grab attention and retain viewer loyalty in the context of fierce competition for higher viewer ratings, and (4) city-sponsorship in which producers benefit from the drama-sets and funding that cities provide, while cities capitalize the affective representation of place in TV dramas that create an emotional connection between audience and place.

My dissertation makes the following theoretical contributions. First, by illuminating the ways in which the story-making in TV dramas and the place-making of cities intersect and mutually configure one another, the dissertation extends the literature on culture and space. One does not merely adopt the other; rather, both can be intertwined so that they are produced and consumed together. Second, the dissertation contributes to literature on urban development by showing that urban strategies can be tied up with the affective side of popular culture, not merely engaging in raw competitions to attract and capital and industries. Third, the dissertation bridges and elucidates the connections and interplay between production, consumption, and storytelling in television dramas--all of which are aspects that have conventionally been treated separately. Fourth, the dissertation contributes to literature on media capitalism through its examination of supply-driven, small-sized independent producers and their speculative nature as they engage in spontaneous, improvised practices of drama-making. Fifth, by demonstrating that Korean dramas have driven their female fans to initiate various drama-themed social activities beyond spaces of gendered confinement, the dissertation broadens the scope of literature on gender and popular culture. Here, my dissertation contests the notion that popular culture naturalizes and reinforces gender division, showing instead possibilities for popular culture to alter gender politics. And finally, taking into account political economic and urban/economic geographic approaches, the dissertation enriches the literature on the Korean Wave, extending textual and cultural analyses and connecting them to industrial and spatial analyses.

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