How Idol Dramas Changed the 21st Century Asian Media Landscape

In many ways, media is a reflection of the world we live in and the cultures with which we surround ourselves. One important piece of this reflection is television, where episodic works are presented in people’s living rooms around the world, shaping daily conversations and, in some cases, redefining an entire media landscape.

In Asia, one specific type of television programming has completely transformed the media landscape and offered a chance for the continent’s facet of cultures to be introduced to an international audience. This type of programming has come to be known as “Idol Dramas”, where plots of romance are supported by up-and-coming actors in fashionable clothing and a contemporary setting.

Origins of the Idol Drama

Originating in Japan in the 1980s, this unique style of dramatic programming was marketed as “trendy dramas” to young audiences who were captivated by the inclusion of their favourite pop singers and charming new actors in a romantic, and almost fantasy-like storyline. It wasn’t until 2001, however, that the brand of “Idol Dramas” became a global phenomenon, with the premiere of Taiwan’s Meteor Garden, which came to be watched by nearly 500 million people across Asia, whilst catapulting the leading men of the series (F4) to overnight fame, kicking off a golden era of idol dramas on mainstream networks.

Elements of an Idol Drama

A typical idol drama consists of the following elements:

Contemporary Romance

One of the most important elements of an idol drama is a plotline that follows young lovers in a modern and mostly urban setting, often with underlying highlights of wealth differences between the lovers. This is a reflection of the complexity of contemporary romance we see today, where technology and interconnected social networks make the process of meeting new people easier and faster every day. In turn, the idol dramas that are produced help audiences find a sense of belonging and allow them to relate to the characters being portrayed on screen.

Popular Culture

Taiwanese television director Arthur Chu said in an interview that “the wardrobe, the hairstyles, and even the slang used by actors in an idol drama all have an incredible impact in shaping trends in popular culture.” This is evidenced not only by the hairstyles made popular in the early 2000s by the F4 from Meteor Garden, but also by the fashion trends brought by Korean dramas such as Goblins: The Lonely and Great God.

In addition to the impact on modern style trends, idol dramas have also encouraged media sensation of on-screen duos, where regular speculation of relationship statuses between co-stars have become the norm for entertainment media across Asia. A prime example of this was the marriage between Korean stars Song Chung-ki and Song Hye-kyo, whose on-screen romance in Descendants of the Sun translated into the real world, igniting a wave of sensationalism towards what many fans regarded as a “fairytale romance”.

Official Soundtracks (OST)

Music is also an important element to the crafting of an idol drama. Especially in recent years, where Korean series have taken centre stage in the mainstream idol drama landscape in Asia, official soundtracks and theme songs have become a crucial part of the experience. Not only do they allow dramas to define their tone and message through song, but they also offer a musical element to the twists and turns of the dramatic plot, giving audiences an audial sensation in their viewing experience in addition to the visual.

Combine these elements together, and what is created is a unique style of programming that perfectly fuses the worlds of reality and fantasy, allowing young audiences to escape to a more perfect world than that of their own while finding connections to real-life, which help them to humanise and sympathise with each character on screen.

Social Impacts of Idol Dramas

In addition to the impacts of idol dramas on popular culture, many younger audiences who tune in to these programmes are also socially impacted by the dramas they watch. Many teenagers have copied or taken inspiration from idol dramas, often by giving gifts given by on-screen characters, or by changing the way they dress to match the leading man or woman. Furthermore, slang originating from dialogue becomes popular amongst the youth, many of whom begin to regularly use them in conversations with peers and even parents.

In some cases, even the accents used for dialogue by idol drama actors can become popularised. Specifically, in the case of Chinese-language idol dramas, the worldwide recognition of series from Taiwan introduced the world to the unique accent of Taiwanese Mandarin, which has come to be described as “soft and tender” by many Chinese speakers worldwide, creating a unique exchange of culture within a common language family.

Future of Idol Dramas

Like any other type of television programming, idol dramas in their current form will not survive changing demographics. With an increasing level of globalism and cultural diversity, idol dramas will need to find ways to cater to a wider group of audiences, and leaving behind the more singular and two-dimensional plots that have come to define dramas of the early 2000s.

Some networks have begun to respond to this growing demand for reinvention, and are beginning to combine the traditional elements of modern romance and popular culture with hints of fantasy (Goblins: The Lonely and Great God), action (Crash Landing on You), time travel (Someday or One Day), and LGBTQ+ themes (What Did you Eat Yesterday?)

As demographics and audience taste continue to evolve, so will the life cycle of the idol drama. In turn, audiences will hopefully have a chance to enjoy more breakthrough pieces of work which combine the traditional elements of idol dramas to create a visual masterpiece.