Two weeks ago, cast members of the South Korean TV drama series “Iris” appeared in concerts at Osaka Castle Hall and Saitama Super Arena. Some 60,000 fans of the star Lee Byung Hun bought tickets, but 1,400 at one of the Saitama events found themselves shut out after the organizers decided that the stage wasn’t big enough.
The organizers set up a second stage on the day of the concert, but due to a lack of communication between them and the promoters they didn’t realize until just before the doors opened that the area where they erected it had been set aside for standing-room ticket holders.
Apparently, there were a lot of very angry housewives — Lee’s Japanese fan base — because media reports mentioned that a dozen policemen had to be called in.
The fans were eventually given seats in the upper tiers of the cavernous arena, and Lee came out to apologize personally for the hourlong delay, promising to “perform more than I had prepared to.”
Shin Seung Hoon, Baik Ji Young, Kim Tae Woo and the K-pop vocal group Bigbang were on hand to sing songs associated with the show, but most of the “concert” was taken up with interviews. Lee and his costars also re-enacted some scenes from the series.
The concerts were presented by TBS, which is airing “Iris” in Japan. It’s the first South Korean drama series broadcast by a Japanese commercial TV network during prime time on a terrestrial station, but, unlike Lee at the Super Arena, it has performed much less than it was expected to. TBS paid ¥400 million for the rights to the series, and on April 21, the day it premiered, Lee and his female costar, Kim Tae Hee, appeared on almost every news and variety show on the network.
The result was a middling 10.1 percent viewer share that night, and it’s gotten worse. Ratings for the second episode was 8.8 percent, and for the next five it hovered in the 7 percent range, which means “Iris” is currently the lowest rated show in its Wednesday night time slot. TBS hoped the concerts would reignite interest, but the people who bought tickets were already sold on the series, and while the rest of the media covered the concerts, such PR effectiveness apparently reached its saturation point a while ago.
It’s easy to see why TBS thought it would be a hit. “Iris” was a ratings monster when it was broadcast in South Korea last fall, scoring spot shares as high as 50 percent. Lee, who plays an elite South Korean spy, is one of the country’s most bankable movie stars and has a huge following in Japan. The production values rival Hollywood’s, with lots of explosions, car chases and shootouts, and since the plot involves tensions between the two Korean states, it is topical as well.
But what really sold TBS was the Japan angle. Some of the episodes take place near Laka Tazawa in Akita Prefecture, which means the series automatically received free prepublicity since almost every media outlet reported on the March 2009 location shooting, attracting hundreds of Japanese fans in the process. And ever since the series ended in South Korea last November, more than 15,000 Korean tourists have descended on the resort area.
The show’s producers originally contacted the Akita prefectural tourist office in October 2008 saying they were thinking of filming some winter scenes there and wanted the prefecture to pay all their expenses. The office immediately said “no,” since it had no money, so the producers called tourist offices in Aomori and Hokkaido but received similar reactions.
Akita had second thoughts. In 2001, Korea Airlines launched direct flights between Incheon and Akita airports, and tourism officials were afraid the carrier might discontinue the route, so they started talking to local businesses about “Iris.” In the end, a luxury hotel agreed to put the crew and cast up for free. The producers took the offer and rewrote the script to take advantage of the location. For Akita, the gamble paid off. (Ironically, the hotel itself hasn’t benefited since it’s priced out of the range of most South Korean tour groups.)
This story was dutifully explained in magazines and newspapers when “Iris” starting airing two months ago, so why isn’t it a hit? It seems obvious that TBS counted too much on ancillary PR and did not think carefully enough about the series itself. An unidentified writer whose specialty is South Korean television told the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho that TBS made the mistake of hiring popular young actor Tatsuya Fujiwara to provide Lee’s voice in the dubbed version. Japanese fans are used to voice actor Kazuya Takahashi, who has always done Lee in TV dramas and movies. Fujiwara has a “husky voice that’s sometimes difficult to understand,” the writer says. A different unidentified showbiz journalist pointed out to the magazine that each episode in the original South Korean TV version was 70 minutes long, but TBS has pared them down to 45 minutes in order to fit the hourlong time slot and allow room for commercials. As a result, many Japanese viewers will find the plot development “uneven,” according to the journalist.
Another explanation for the show’s poor ratings is that “Korean Wave” fans, and Lee maniacs in particular, have probably already seen the series, since it was broadcast with subtitles on TBS’s CS (Communications Satellite) channel in March. And the original South Korean episodes are relatively easy to purchase or download.
In order for TBS to garner ratings that mean anything during prime time, they have to attract people who aren’t normally Korean drama freaks, and in that regard “Iris” may not be that effective. The action-espionage component is better than anything Japanese dramas might deliver in the same vein, but compared to “24,” a well-known American action series that “Iris” resembles, it’s bloated and sometimes difficult to follow. And as the writer interviewed by Shukan Shincho says, spy dramas with political overtones “don’t appeal to Japanese TV viewers.”
But TBS is still trying. With more than half the series to go, the broadcaster has started a contest. Each episode opens with a QR code that viewers can read with their cell phones in order to acquire points that qualify them for a chance to win cash prizes worth up to ¥5 million. When all other plans fail, just pay people to watch it.