The Troubles of Not Starring in a Korean Drama

I imagine to a huge number of avid Korean drama fans, the idea of working as a supporting actor on a K-Drama sounds fantastic. Working with beautiful, well-known stars, playing out fun and interesting storylines and having the opportunity to experience the glamorous world of drama sounds like a dream. However the reality is often very different.

Working on dramas is hard and the rewards are often questionable. One of the main reasons for this is that many of the staff and actors of productions are severely overworked. Most drama series (not including daily dramas and sitcoms) only begin shooting a month or so before broadcast and so often by the time that the first few episodes have been broadcast, staff have to race to complete the next episode each week. This working practice came about as a response to viewer demands but the demands it in turn puts the cast and crew is huge.

secret gLive-shooting, as it is called, allows the writers to make changes to plotlines to satisfy viewers and boost ratings. An extreme example is the final episode of ‘Secret Garden’ where footage from a soundtrack concert which was held in the two hours preceding the broadcast of the episode was edited into the show in time for its airing immediately after the end of the concert. However in return for viewer satisfaction, live shooting can have serious impact on workload. It results in long work hours, actors getting scripts less than a day in advance and editing often not being completed until the day of broadcast. This often leads to exhaustion, mistakes and accidents (particularly on action shoots) all of which potentially put the health and wellbeing of performers at risk.

There is little time to eat, sleep or prepare and the outcomes of this can be drastic. There have been many stories of famous actors fainting, being hospitalised or resorting to performance enhancing drugs due to overwork (a few names include Ha Ji-won, Han Ye-seul, and Song Ji-hyo). If this is happening to the stars, imagine how the rest of the cast and crew are being treated.

Like many TV industries all over the world, in recent years, broadcasters have been making the shift from primarily in-house productions to relying more and more on the work of outside production companies. While this can have benefits for TV viewers, such as more diversity in storylines and the input of more creative talent meaning a wider range of choice, it sometimes comes at a cost to the staff and actors involved in the production. Big broadcasters no longer have to worry about the welfare of their staff. Instead they are free to push the independent production company to produce more on a tighter schedule and budget without having to take responsibility for the knock-on impact this has on all involved.

rainThis has led to a rise in corruption and bad business practice. Taking advantage of the fact that actors often aren’t paid until well after broadcast, some rogue production companies have been not paying staff at all and running off with the money. Take for instance the current high-profile case of the cancelled drama ‘Rascal Sons’ which owes the cast and crew over 100 million won. The debt shows no signs of being paid soon as the CEO and production company staff seem to have disappeared. Several other productions have faced similar situations however they often only come to light if a well-known name is involved such as Rain’s lawsuit against the production company of ‘Fugitive: Plan B’ for unpaid wages.

Seeing that all the problems discussed so far also affect the stars of dramas, why is it this article focussing on the supporting cast specifically? The reason is simple: money. While lead actors may face the same difficulties in terms of long hours, overwork and lack of preparation time, they are paid massive sums of money for their hardship. Yes, Rain may have been owed a huge amount by the production company and they should have fulfilled their contract but he had also already been paid $720,000 USD. That kind of money is more than some dramas pay the entire cast and crew, excluding stars, over the whole course of a production.

Even when companies are legitimate and well-meaning the restraints of the budget can lead to difficulty in paying wages. Broadcasters demand unrealistically low budgets that productions struggle to stick to and the first casualty is usually the crew and supporting actors’ wages.


Members of the
KBAU protesting unpaid wages

It is fairly common for half of the budget for the series to be allotted to the wages of the two main leads which are often as much as 20-50 million won per episode. The entire wages of the staff plus all production expenses must then be taken out of the rest of the money. Production companies prioritise the cost of sets, equipment, costumes, graphics and everything else needed to shoot a drama, so as not to go into debt, as well as the cost of celebrity wages, so as not to cause a scandal in the news. The result of this is that wages for all the supporting actors and crew get side-lined, reduced and sometimes not paid at all. The Korean Broadcasting Actors’ Union (KBAU) estimates that actors are owed as much as 680 million won in unpaid wages and the list of dramas with outstanding wages keeps getting longer.

Not only are supporting actors overworked, routinely put at risk, underpaid or, in far too many situations, not paid at all but when accidents do happen, neither production companies nor broadcasters take responsibility for the occurrence. A particularly tragic example of this is the story of this extra who was killed in a bus crash on the way to a shoot. All of this leads to serious difficulties for actors and general disillusionment with a profession they may well love and have undoubtedly worked hard to be in.

The only ray of light for actors comes in the form of organisations like the KBAU who work hard on behalf of TV actors. The KBAU has frequently organised demonstrations and strikes and is now demanding that actors be given standard contracts which limit the number of hours they can work per day and outlines a minimum amount of advance that they must be given for scripts.

Measures like these would surely increase the quality of productions and make for a safer and happier working environment. However broadcasters and companies are against them and there is no telling whether they will ever take place. Meanwhile actors will continue to feel dissatisfied with their work.

It might seem cool to have your face on TV but with conditions like these: is it worth it?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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  • Orion

    From the companies and broadcasters to shady deals done by corrupt stars to the audience itself, there is plenty of blame to go around. They all have individuals that put greed and satisfaction of themselves above fairness, respect, honor and the health, right treatment and reward of the people who do the hard work.

    As with politics, corruption and dishonesty are a big part of business. Unfortunately, labor rights are not top priority and until steps into the right direction are made by all of those at fault, things won’t get better.

    Channels and viewers need to stop demanding irrational things and give drama productions time and peace, production companies need to stop pushing their workforce and yielding to channels so much or cashing in and scraming, agencies need to stop bribing their stars’ way into works or demanding huge pay without considering the budget and the actors themselves need to stand up for all of those who have less power and influence to defend their rights.

    When all those different individuals and groups run with the sole desire of getting as much as possible without sacrificing a thing, this is what happens. Until that changes, Korean dramas will be a very sad industry behind the glamor of the lens.

  • Ethlenn

    Nothing will change unless actors themselves stop thinking of their job as “owing” the viewers but start thinking of it as if it was a normal, regular job that acting IS. They need to for a union and demand being treated as human beings with all limitations that human body and psyche contains.