How Netflix and “Squid Game” broke the Emmy language barrier

Netflix and Squid Game made Emmy history on Monday. It couldn’t have happened at a better time.

Netflix’s Korean-language hit won two Emmy Awards Monday night, the first non-English-language show to win the best Primetime Emmys. Until this year, a non-English project had never even been nominated in a main category.

The two men in black tie suits hold their Emmys at chest height.

Actor Lee Jung-jae and Squid Game creator Hwang Dong-hyuk with their Emmy statues.

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Squid Game’s Lee Jung-jae, who plays the debt-stricken protagonist in the brutal survival thriller game, won the Emmy for Lead Actor in a Drama Series. Creator Hwang Dong-hyuk won for outstanding drama direction. (They are also the first Asian individuals to win those categories.)

The milestone marks the intersection of two global phenomena: South Korea’s cultural wave and Netflix’s race for global domination. After building momentum for more than two decades, the K-wave turned into a flood as Netflix was making itself available – and actually attractive – across nearly every border of the world.

The Emmys, unlike other major accolades, have been elusive for international breakthroughs. Squid Game’s victories underline how the Emmys needed a globalized US service geared to world ubiquity to include South Korea’s cultural phenomenon in Hollywood’s television pantheon.

Unlike South Korea’s cultural exports, which include the hugely successful boy band BTS, addictive video games and soap operas, Netflix really needs a boost. With unprecedented subscriber losses this year, Netflix is ​​in the midst of its biggest confidence crisis since its main gig was shipping DVD rentals in red envelopes.

The global prestige of South Korea’s pop culture, on the other hand, has never been better.

A K-wave on Emmys

The Korean’s global cultural influence extends across TV, movies, food, beauty and fashion, but nothing exemplifies its power status as much as K-pop music. BTS were the first K-pop group to reach number 1 on the US Billboard 200 and last year beat Taylor Swift with the most consecutive weeks to number 1 on the digital singles chart. On YouTube, nine of the 10 most viewed music videos in the first 24 hours are all K-pop, mostly BTS and Blackpink. The only one who isn’t is Swift again, sneaking in at number 10.

Squid Game itself is a testament to the global popularity of Korean TV – it’s Netflix’s most watched title, with over 1.65 billion watch hours in its first 28 days.

And Squid Game’s Emmy wins come as South Korea is experiencing its heyday at the highest levels of cinema. Bong Joon-ho’s upset Parasite win at the 2020 Oscar for Best Picture was followed the following year by Korea’s Yoon Yuh-jung who won Best Supporting Actress for the film Minari. Most recently, in May, South Korean Park Chan-wook won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival for his romantic mystery film Decision to Leave.

But because other accolades reflected Korea’s growing cultural influence, the Emmys did not.

This is partly due to the fact that eligibility rules and voting dynamics have effectively excluded most non-English programming from Primetime Emmys. Unlike the Oscars, which are not dependent on country of origin suitability, Emmys require international TV that is half in a language other than English to be a co-production between a US company and an international partner. That partnership has to basically start from the beginning, starting with pre-production with the aim of being broadcast on US television.

By comparison, to compete for an Oscar, a film must be shown in a commercial theater for a week in one of six cities in the United States. Distributing a film in the US is no small feat and submitting a film for an Oscar is expensive, but the US has an existing arthouse cinema structure and a long history of exhibitors large and small putting subtitles on them. on the big screen. Compared to getting the green light for an international, non-English-language show for US television, a single week of screenings is a relatively easier bar to overcome.

Even with a growing ecosystem of Spanish-language television in the United States, the Primetime Emmys have remained a bastion of English language recognition. In 2011 Telemundo is owned by NBCUniversal made her first push at the Primetime Emmys, launching a nomination campaign for his hit drama La Reina del Sur. The offer failed to get any nods for the show, and no non-English programs have since been nominated in the top drama categories, right up to Squid Game.

But in 2011, Netflix had yet to make its first original shows. Now, the second and third seasons of Reina del Sur are co-productions with Netflix.

Netflix’s global push

Until Netflix’s aggressive worldwide expansion, no US media company was investing significantly in global TV content accessible to the global audience. As of 2016, Netflix has opened its doors.

Reed Hastings stands on a stage, dwarfed by the huge screen behind him reading

Netflix announced its surprise near-global launch at CES in 2016.

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Netflix was already operating in more than 60 countries when, in January 2016, it essentially took its service around the world in a single launch. In a surprise move, Netflix more than tripled the number of countries it has streamed in by adding 130 new markets all at once, including South Korea.

“We are at the beginning of a global revolution,” CEO Reed Hastings said at the time, concluding his speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas with the news that Netflix, in essence, had just rolled out across the globe. world except China. “You are witnessing the birth of a global television network.”

Launching Netflix in all those countries was the first step. But the longest and steepest climb has been the localization of Netflix’s service and programming in each of these new markets, all while breaking down the barriers that isolated the attractiveness of a program to the market it was created for.

Localizing content meant originating and licensing productions in new countries, for those countries. It took two years after launching in South Korea for Netflix’s first Korean original show to begin streaming in 2018. Last year, Netflix’s Korean budget was $ 500 million and its slate of Korean projects from the 2022 has more than 25 titles, the highest yet.

To make those localized shows attractive outside the boundaries in which they were produced, Netflix has embarked on a subtitling and dubbing extravaganza. Subtitling and dubbing, as they are sometimes called, make programming accessible in other languages. Netflix hits like Spanish series Money Heist and French show Lupine have relied on cross-border appeal for their overwhelming popularity, but none more so than Squid Game. When Squid Game was released, it was subtitled in 31 languages ​​and voiced in 13 more, and 95% of Squid Game viewers were from outside Korea.

Money Heist bank robbers disguise themselves in red overalls and masks by the painter Dalí.

Money Heist, a Spanish robbery series, is one of the most popular Netflix franchises globally.


South Korea’s cultural production has reached so many heights in recent years that the Korea’s reception of Monday night’s Emmy breakthrough was subdued in comparison. But Netflix’s role in Squid Game’s historic Emmy wins comes at a critical time for the service.

Having won the most Emmys of any network or platform last year, Netflix is ​​struggling this year with the deepest subscriber losses ever, especially in the US.

Years of steady growth in Netflix subscribers have prompted nearly every major Hollywood media company to pour billions of dollars into their streaming operations. These so-called streaming wars led to a wave of new services, including Apple TV Plus, Disney Plus, HBO Max, Peacock And Paramount Plus – tons of streaming options that complicate how many services you have to use (and often pay for) to watch your favorite shows and movies online. It has also escalated the competition to the toughest level Netflix has ever faced.

Scoring Emmys doesn’t necessarily unlock rewards for a service other than bragging rights. But after months of Netflix struggling with a crisis of confidence, Squid Game has at least given Netflix something historic to brag about.

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