China's obsession with a South Korean television show about a 400-year-old Harvard-educated alien who falls in love with an arrogant actress reached such a frenzy last year that online streaming companies here began racing to snap up licensing rights for other South Korean television programs, inflating their prices almost tenfold.
Then China's entertainment regulators stepped in, imposing greater limits on foreign television content as part of a broader campaign to rein in China's fast-growing market for online video, which has become a popular alternative to Chinese broadcast television. (According to official statistics, there were 433 million viewers of online video — TV shows included — in China by the end of 2014, making it the largest streaming market in the world.) Many in the online video industry in China suspect the new guidelines were issued at least partly because of the popularity of "My Love From Another Star."
Faced with the limits, popular streaming websites like Sohu, iQiyi and Youku want to develop their own Korean-inspired content to sate the country's appetite for the programming, part of a broader fascination with Korean popular culture. That has meant trying to tap into South Korea's secret sauce — the magic formula that has turned the country into a pop-culture juggernaut that churns out viral exports like the singer and rapper Psy, the singer Rain and hits like "My Love From Another Star."
"We share the same culture and cherish similar social values," said Sophie Yu, director of international communications for iQiyi, the online video streaming website affiliated with the search giant Baidu. "So Korean content naturally is easy to be understood and accepted by the Chinese audience."
For Chinese companies, part of the strategy includes making Chinese versions of popular South Korean fare, particularly variety and reality shows. Some of the hottest Chinese programs, like Zhejiang Television's game-variety show "Running Man" and Hunan Television's reality show "Where Are We Going, Dad?," were based on South Korean formats. Nearly all of China's top online video websites have signed agreements with South Korean television stations and production companies to co-produce television shows tailored for Chinese audiences.
But after the success of "My Love From Another Star," Chinese companies are setting their sights higher. Millions of viewers in China last year tuned in to watch the 21-episode mini-series, which originally aired on the Seoul Broadcasting System, a leading South Korean network.
但《来自星星的你》大获成功后，中国公司把目光投向了更高的地方。去年，数以百万计的中国观众收看了这部21集的韩剧，它最初是在知名韩国电视台首尔放送(Seoul Broadcasting System)播出的。
The show ignited a nationwide frenzy. Fans were hospitalized for binge-eating fried chicken and beer (the star actress's favorite food on the show), and even the first lady of China, Peng Liyuan, became swept up in the fever. She was quoted by the state-run People's Daily commenting on the physical resemblance between the lead actor, an extraterrestrial heartthrob with a mop of jet-black hair, and her husband, President Xi Jinping, in his younger years.
The target audience for dramas like "Star," as is it known, consists mostly of women in their teens to early 40s who prefer to watch shows known as naocanju, or "brain-dead dramas," instead of popular series from the United States, like "Game of Thrones" and "House of Cards."
Maggie Xiong, senior director of international acquisitions at Youku, the streaming service, said the show "brought Korean content to the mainstream." It was streamed more than 2.5 billion times in the first three months after its premiere in December 2013.
" ‘My Love From Another Star' was a very exceptional show, just like ‘Friends' in the 1990s and early 2000s," said Grace Guan, who manages Sohu's Korean content strategy. "We would all love to make a show like that, but there are so many elements involved."
For years, entertainment industry observers in China have sought to explain Korean television's foothold in China. They say it comes down to packaging.
"The Koreans continue to do well because of the details," said Fan Xiaojing, a Chinese journalist and long-term analyst of the Korean entertainment industry. "China just can't capture the romance."
Unlike in China, where experts say up to 70 percent of a production's budget can be spent on actors' salaries, both Korean and Chinese producers say that Korean shows tend to spend more on production sets and screenwriters, avoiding fake props, brands and backdrops in favor of the real things. And since in Korea shows are broadcast soon after they are filmed, scriptwriters and directors can get feedback quickly, allowing them to make tweaks according to audience demands.
Actors in Korea are also groomed from a young age and taught how to walk and dress, said Ms. Guan, who previously worked at an artists' management agency in Seoul. They are taken in for plastic surgery, and as part of their training are instructed on how to "let just one teardrop fall."
The Chinese are catching on, producers on both sides say, as they also learn what content resonates most with Chinese audiences. According to producers, the show must be fast-paced, and if it is a drama, it should be a love story.
"Chinese people think the good dramas are ones with nonrealistic themes," said Ma Xue, a cultural critic and producer. "All involve a Cinderella who falls in love with a prince."
As for love, the expression of it is usually restrained. In "Star," when the alien character, Do Min-Joon, and the star actress, Cheon Song-yi, even so much as kiss, Do Min-Joon falls violently ill.
According to the new regulations, which were issued in September, foreign television shows cannot constitute more than 30 percent of TV content on Chinese online video-streaming sites. In addition, all foreign television shows must be reviewed by censors before they can be streamed.
Korean production companies are still finding ways to take advantage of the fast-growing online market in China. HBEntertainment is partnering with a Chinese company to produce two new dramas similar to "Star" specifically for the Chinese market, one in Chinese and one in Korean with subtitles.
"China is a big part of our strategy now," said Bomi Moon, head of the Korean company HB Entertainment, which recently opened a Beijing office. "Many Chinese companies want to work with Korean partners because we're good at writing scripts."
Whether this will result in a show as popular as "Star" has prompted much debate in China. During the annual session of the National People's Congress last year, some members spent a full morning panel discussion bemoaning that China could not have made "Star."
One high ranking Chinese politician, Wang Qishan, said he watched the show. "Actually, I have been wondering why Korean dramas have such a strong foothold in China," he said, according to The Beijing News. "After watching I finally understood — Korean dramas are ahead of us."