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Top 50 highest-rated TV dramas of all time

Most K-drama fans are well aware that tv viewership ratings do not necessarily reflect the true quality (or even the pure entertainment value) of a drama. I’m sure many fans have at least once experienced frustration to learn that their favorite dramas failed to pull in the ratings, or been puzzled as to why certain ratings monsters did as well as they did. And of course, sometimes the public just simply gets it right, and a number of dramas truly merited the high ratings they received.

AGB Nielsen Media Research (then known as Media Service Korea) first started measuring tv viewership ratings in Korea in 1992. Since then, TNmS (formerly known as TNS) also entered the field in 1999, and the two companies remain as competitors today.

With the changing nature of tv viewership these days, there are many alternative ways to watching a drama besides television. Although the significance of tv ratings is gradually declining, the ratings still remain the primary factor in attracting advertisers, and thus very important to the tv networks.

Just one look at the end-of-the-year awards shows by the three broadcasting companies indicate that they often reward the actors not for their actual acting, but for being able to bring in the high numbers (the ratings and the moolah). Or how many times have we seen talented actors being snubbed at these same awards shows for starring in dramas with less than impressive ratings?

Fans can b*tch and moan as much as we want, but I don’t see the ratings war going away anytime soon. Simply because there aren’t any tangible alternative ways to measuring a drama’s success.

So which dramas came out victorious in this never-ending battle for ratings? Here is a list of the top 50 highest-rated K-dramas from 1992 until the present. (Please note that there are many different versions of drama ratings available. Some rankings report the average rating of all the episodes of a drama during its entire run or during a specified period of time. Others report the highest rating ever reached by a drama at any particular instant during its run.) This list is a ranking of the dramas by the highest-rated episode.

1. First Love (KBS2) ………………………………….. 65.8% (Apr. 20, 1997)
2. What is Love (MBC) ………………………………. 64.9% (May 24, 1992)
3. Sandglass (SBS) …………………………………….. 64.5% (Feb. 6, 1995)
4. Heo Joon (MBC) ……………………………………. 63.7% (June 27, 2000)
5. Sunny Place of Youth (KBS2) …………………. 62.7% (Nov. 12, 1995)
6. You and I (MBC) ……………………………………. 62.4% (Apr. 12, 1998)
7. The Son and the Daughter (MBC) …………… 61.1% (Mar. 21, 1993)
8. Taejo Wang Geon (KBS1) ………………………. 60.2% (May 20, 2001)
9. Eyes of Dawn (MBC) ……………………………… 58.4% (Feb. 6, 1992)
10. Dae Jang Geum (MBC) …………………………. 57.8% (Mar. 23, 2004)
11. Lovers in Paris (SBS) …………………………….. 57.6% (Aug. 15, 2004)
12. See and See Again (MBC) ………………………. 57.3% (Oct. 12, 1998)
13. Truth (MBC) …………………………………………. 56.5% (Feb. 24, 2000)
14. Jealousy (MBC) …………………………………….. 56.1% (July 21, 1992)
15. Even When the Wind Blows (KBS1) ………… 55.8% (Feb. 26, 1996)
16. Bathhouse Men (KBS2) ………………………….. 53.4% (Aug. 25, 1996)
17 (tied) Gook Hee (MBC) ……………………………. 53.1% (Nov. 16, 1999)
17 (tied) Trap of Youth (SBS) ……………………….. 53.1% (Apr. 15, 1999)
19. Tomato (SBS) ………………………………………… 52.7% (June 3, 1999)
20. M (MBC) ……………………………………………….. 52.2% (Aug. 30, 1994)
21. Season of the Storm (MBC) …………………….. 52.1% (Dec. 22, 1993)
22. Jumong (MBC) ………………………………………. 51.9%* (Mar. 6, 2007)
23. Rustic Period (SBS) ……………………………….. 51.8% (Dec. 9, 2002)
24. My Mother’s Sea (MBC) …………………………. 51.6% (Dec. 26, 1993)
25. Baker King Kim Tak Gu (KBS2) ………………. 50.8%* (Sept. 16, 2010)
26. My Name is Kim Sam Soon (MBC) ………….. 50.5%* (July 21, 2005)
27. The Legend of Ambition (KBS2) ……………… 50.2% (Oct. 25, 1998)
28. Ladies of the Palace (SBS) ………………………. 49.9% (Nov. 13, 2001)
29. My Son’s Woman (MBC) …………………………. 49.7% (Feb. 22, 1994)
30. Tears of the Dragon (KBS1) …………………….. 49.6% (May 30, 1998)
31. Star in My Heart (MBC) ………………………….. 49.3% (Apr. 29, 1997)
32. Famous Princesses (KBS2) ………………………. 49.2% (Dec. 31, 2006)
33. Ambition (MBC) ……………………………………… 49.0% (Feb. 23, 1994)
34 (tied) The Moon of Seoul (MBC) ……………….. 48.7% (Mar. 27, 1994)
34 (tied) The Tie that Binds (KBS1) ………………… 48.7% (Dec. 11, 1997)
36. Last Match (MBC) …………………………………….. 48.6% (Feb. 22, 1994)
37. The Sons of Sol Pharmacy (KBS2) ……………… 48.6%* (Oct. 11, 2009)
38. All About Eve (MBC) …………………………………. 48.3% (July 6, 2000)
39. How About Your Husband? (SBS) ………………. 48.2% (May 25, 1993)
40. Cinderella (MBC) ……………………………………….. 48.0% (July 13, 1997)
41. Miss Mermaid (MBC) ………………………………….. 47.9% (Feb. 5, 2003)
42. All In (SBS) …………………………………………………. 47.7% (Apr. 3, 2003)
43 (tied) Until We Love (KBS1) …………………………. 47.1% (Feb. 27, 1997)
43 (tied) Shining Inheritance (SBS) ……………………. 47.1%* (July 26, 2009)
45. My Rosy Life (KBS2) ……………………………………. 47.0%* (Oct. 12, 2005)
46. Pilot (MBC) ………………………………………………….. 46.2% (Nov. 2, 1993)
47. Family Wealthy of Daughters (KBS2) …………….. 45.9% (Jan. 22, 1995)
48. Last War (MBC) ……………………………………………. 45.5% (Sept. 7, 1999)
49. Terms of Endearment (KBS2) ……………………….. 45.4%* (Oct. 10, 2004)
50. Mister Q (SBS) ……………………………………………… 45.3% (July 16, 1998)

*All numbers are based on AGB Nielsen Media Research, unless indicated otherwise by an asterisk to indicate that it’s based on TNmS results.

A closer look at the list:

Of the 50 dramas, there are five daily dramas (See and See Again, Even When the Wind Blows, The Tie that Binds, Miss Mermaid, and Until We Love), and twelve trendy dramas, targeted toward the younger viewers in their 20s and 30s (Lovers in ParisTruthJealousyTomatoMy Name is Kim Sam SoonStar in My HeartLast MatchAll About EveCinderellaShining InheritancePilot, and Mister Q). There are six sageuk dramas (Heo Joon, Taejo Wang Geon, Dae Jang Geum, Jumong, Ladies of the Palace, and Tears of the Dragon), and eight non-sageuk period pieces (Sandglass, The Son and the Daughter, Eyes of Dawn, Gook Hee, Rustic Period, Baker King Kim Tak Gu, The Legend of Ambition, and Ambition).


Choi Soo Jong and Chae Si Ra in Pilot (1993)

Choi Soo Jong starred in the most number of dramas that made the top 50 (First Love, The Son and the Daughter, Taejo Wang Geon, Jealousy, Even When the Wind Blows, The Legend of Ambition, Ambition, and Pilot), for a total of 8 dramas. He’s followed by Chae Si Ra, who starred in seven dramas that made the top 50 list (The Son and the Daughter, Eyes of Dawn, The Legend of Ambition, My Son’s Woman, The Moon of Seoul, Pilot, and Terms of Endearment).

Although tv ratings were not officially measured prior to 1992, many speculate that Assi (아씨, TBC 1971), Journey (여로, MBC 1972), and Love and Ambition (사랑과 야망, MBC 1987) may have reached ratings close to 75%. Nowadays, with the growth of cable channels and the increased uses of watching dramas online, it has become extremely difficult for dramas to pull in ratings in the 50s and 60s (although Baker King Kim Tak Goo proved that it’s still possible).

And finally, just my quick thought on this list. With the exception of five dramas (Jumong, My Son’s Woman, AmbitionUntil We Love, and Mister Q), I have watched at least one episode of all the dramas listed above.

Whether or not I agree that these dramas deserve to have received such high ratings or whether there are other dramas that better deserve to be on this list, I at least see the validity of most of the dramas listed that were from pre-2000. (Ok, with the exception of First Love, which I think is the most overrated K-drama of all time.)


(left, What is Love; right, You and I)

For instance, dramas like What is Love and You and I are considered by critics and viewers alike to be two of the greatest family dramas ever made, written by the two gurus, Kim Soo Hyun and Kim Jung Soo, before they lost their creative juice. Eyes of Dawn is considered to have single-handedly changed K-dramaland forever in its scale and quality. Even When the Wind Blows was a solid and heart-warming daily drama, showing that daily dramas CAN serve a greater purpose than being mere background noise during dinner. Jealousy was the first ever trendy drama, and thanks to its success, tv stations started seeing that there was a largely untapped audience among younger viewers in their 20s and 30s.

But when it comes to dramas that made this list from post-2000, I can’t help but think that many of them simply won in a luck of the draw. I don’t see anything particularly special about dramas like Lovers in Paris, Baker King Kim Tak Gu, The Sons of Sol Pharmacy, or Famous Princesses compared to any other dramas that aired around the same time as they did.

Has the taste of the viewers gone down over the years? Did we come to expect less from our dramas? One thing is for sure. For as long as mediocre dramas continue to bring in monstrous ratings, tv networks will continue to make them.

13 comments

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  1. bella

    I’ll post a longer response when I am not so jetlagged but I recall Miss Mermaid being such a convoluted mess and ditto for First Love.

    Also, I never did care for Gook Hee either.

    1. blue

      Oh gosh, don’t get me started on Miss Mermaid. But that proves my point about post-2000 dramas, right?

      You know, I always get Gook Hee and Duk Yi mixed up. And then I remember that Gook Hee is the one about cookies (oh, haha, aren’t they so clever with names? *snicker*). Of the handful of human success story period dramas I’ve seen, I remember Gook Hee to be one of the better ones. (But I probably feel that way because of the sour taste still left behind from the ridiculousness that was Baker King Kim Tak Gu.)

  2. Rose

    Hi. I’m looking for a copy of the soundtrack to this show. I actually performed the main theme song and 2 other songs on the soundtrack. Do you know where I can get a copy?

    Rose

    1. Rose

      I was referring to the show Mister Q in 1998.

    2. blue

      I don’t know where you would be able to find the soundtrack because the drama is so old. They’re not even available on Naver Music (http://music.naver.com/album/index.nhn?albumId=66580). However, I found three MVs using the three main songs from the soundtrack. Hope they’re what you’re looking for!

      http://vodpod.com/watch/5612550-mister-q-1
      http://vodpod.com/watch/5612562-mister-q-2
      http://vodpod.com/watch/5612569-mister-q-3

  3. radhika

    Thank-you so much for this post!!!

    Over my lifetime — tht is b4 i die
    I’ll definitely try to watch these k-dramas!

    1. blue

      Oh my, that would be A LOT of dramas, especially since many of those listed are fairly long dramas and not all of them are worthy of their high ratings. Just pick and choose the ones you’re really interested in! Good luck!

  4. Gorjuz

    I have watched 4 dramas that were included in this list. I would have to say that after watching so many dramas up to now, “Lovers in Paris” remains my top favorite.

  5. Korean_Drama

    Wonder where “Spring Waltz” or “My Fair Lady” falls in the numbers?

  6. malavika

    i dont think all of them r good. but i have seen a few from that list which r good.

  7. hoang

    i think it’s depend on taste and luck. P/s The baker king is awesome

  8. princess

    I couldn’t see or maybe (i missed it out) Boys over flowers is not included on the list.

  9. martin fennell

    I found this post because I have started watching “first love” and wanted to find out something about it.
    I have only seen 4 of the dramas, and Sandglass definely deserves it’s high place.

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