TV production companies have long been complaining about the exorbitant fees charged by top stars, which drive production costs up to the point where even a hit series no longer guarantees profits for the producers. But their complaints have curbed neither the stars' demands nor the public's appetite for watching them.
The leading star of the Korean pop-culture craze, actor Bae Yong-joon
earned a record fee of W100 million (US$1=W1,202) per episode for MBC series "Taewangsasingi" ("The Legend"
) in 2007. In addition, he was reportedly guaranteed an additional W150 million per episode based on ratings and overseas sales. When Bae starred in "Winter Sonata
", the series credited with setting off the craze, in 2002, he was paid W4 million per episode.
Other stars also rake in huge sums. Park Shin-yang
made W50 million per episode and Lee Byung-hun
W25 million for "IRIS"
, though Lee's actual earnings added up to W100 million per episode considering all the incentives. Actresses Son Ye-jin
, Kim Tae-hee
and Go Hyun-jung
make about W20-30 million per episode, excluding additional incentives if their dramas get re-aired or sold overseas. Pan Entertainment President Kim Jong-sik said, "Compared to five years ago, actors get paid five to six times more now on average".
This distorts the way productions are financed. According to the Korea Creative Content Agency, actors' fees account for 60 percent of the total cost of a TV drama, compared to 20 percent in Japan. TV production companies argue that the terrestrial networks demand big names, allowing the stars to negotiate exorbitant contracts.
The CEO of a TV production company said, "When I visit broadcasters with a business plan for new drama without a star in the cast, they refuse and say we need to get a few huge stars in the cast. If we want to get a place in the program list, we have no choice but to do what they say because they have absolute power".
Broadcasters claim they have to protect their investment. Huh Woong, head of the drama department at SBS, said, "It is broadcasters' inherent right to demand a better cast when viewers' have trust in star actors, because the risk of airing unpopular dramas fall mostly on broadcasters".