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K-pop and Korean TV dramas extend global reach via streaming

CJ Group teams with Netflix and China's Youku in promoting content abroad

Fans of Produce 48 have flooded the group's official website with comments ahead of the selection of the final 12 members at the end of the month.

TOKYO -- South Korean showbiz giant CJ Group is helping to propel homegrown content into the global mainstream, as it not only distributes music shows on its cable TV and satellite services but joins with Netflix and other global video platforms to bring content to many parts of the world.

Some nations, including the U.S., have elections this year, but a different contest slated for month's end is enthralling an estimated 1 million fans of K-pop, or Korean pop music, around the world. Come Aug. 31, viewers of "Produce 48," a South Korean weekly survival TV show that premiered June 15, will find out which contestants have won enough fan votes to make up a new 12-member female "pop idol" group.

Ahead of the live-broadcast finale, the official website has been inundated by fan comments, such as "They're crazy good dancers!" and "I wish everyone could make the group." Judging by these polyglot posts -- in Korean, Japanese, English, Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese, among other languages -- the anticipation is building among viewers in Asia and beyond.

"Produce 48," aired by music television Mnet, is a collaboration between the network and Yasushi Akimoto, the renowned Japanese pop producer behind the hugely popular idol group AKB48. Mnet is run by CJ Entertainment & Merchandising, or CJ ENM, which is part of the CJ Group, a midsize conglomerate that split off from the Samsung group in 1993. The group began as a sugar producer but now handles businesses ranging from pharmaceuticals to food distribution and entertainment.

"Produce 48" is also broadcast in Japan, Southeast Asia and the U.S. via CJ ENM's own cable services or other providers, and streamed in other regions.

The program, which shows the contestants competing in a series of elimination rounds, has drawn a big viewership, boosting K-pop music and concert sales.

"If we can identify viewers with great accuracy across borders, we'll be able to bring in potential advertisers," said a CJ ENM executive. The company is aiming to boost its revenue from the 4.4 trillion won ($3.93 billion) estimated for 2018 by 50% in three years.

Hanryu, or Hallyu, translated as the Korean wave, began with TV dramas. One called "Winter Sonata" became a huge hit in Japan in 2003 and later many other markets, and brought Korean TV series to the global mainstream along with "Dae Jang Geum" and other shows. K-pop's explosion as a global phenomenon followed.

Male duo TVXQ!, Girls' Generation and Kara were among the chart-topping groups in that period, when programs were generally developed for TV broadcast. But around 2014, CJ ENM started focusing on streaming.

"Our planning capability for creating video content is versatile. We have a number of world-class creators in house," the CJ ENM executive said. Now that fans are watching videos online, the company is strategically seeking major domestic players for streaming in the U.S. and China.

Studio Dragon, a production company in the CJ ENM group, in July licensed a 24-episode history drama series called "Mr. Sunshine" to Netflix, the American streaming powerhouse with more than 100 million members worldwide. It marked the first exclusive distribution for the studio, which pocketed a licensing fee estimated at $36 million.

In China, CJ ENM has partnerships with Youku, the video streaming platform member of the Alibaba Group Holding, and a unit of Tencent Holdings, gaining a foothold in the world's second-largest economy.

CJ ENM itself is focusing on producing content tailored to online viewing. It formed a joint venture with a major talent agency in South Korea last month in a bid to secure popular performers. It has also signed contracts with 1,400 popular YouTubers in South Korea and abroad in an effort to create viewer-catching content for smartphones.

The company is also spending on technology to better understand viewer behavior. It teamed up with U.S. audience research giant Nielsen to develop a system quantifying viewer reactions on social media sites.

"Produce 48" is part of these efforts. CJ ENM has the ambitious goal of boosting its overseas sales portion from 17% projected for 2018 to 32% in three years.

Exports by South Korea's broadcast content sector reached $2.02 billion in 2016, according to the Korea Creative Content Agency -- six times the figure for Japan, known as another major content producer in Asia. Japan, for its part, is playing catch-up, with major media companies joining with streamlining powerhouses. Fuji Television Network is working with Youku to distribute Japanese dramas in mainland China, while Hulu's Japanese service, a unit of Nippon Television Network, started streaming new dramas for foreign viewers in 19 Asian markets this April.

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