They have a hidden fan base, who knows the size? It seems that usually getting addicted to kpop and kdramas is tied to getting introduced to it by someone you know. Once that happens, it can be passed through groups of friends.
I think the people who enjoy them fall into two categories. 1. Those who understand it and share it with others because they like it so much, and 2. those who start watching because there is an air of romance when they don’t fully understand it.
As people watch, they begin to really appreciate Korean culture, think it is fun to learn some Korean, and enjoy the social aspect of sharing this fun online with others and in-person with friends and family.
With the quality of subtitling available for popular dramas, group 2 can easily become integrated into group 1. 🙂
I think people get into kdramas in large part due to the way they are portrayed. Regardless of whether the drama is action, suspense, cutesy and light or melodramatic, the focus is on the building of the relationships and understanding how and why the characters behave the way they do. Even if you don’t like that character, you have a sense of why they do things. Emotion and thoughts are verbally expressed to give the viewers lots of insight. It makes people feel included when watching.
Also, kdramas are less about blatant PDA and more about holding hands secretly or a quick peck around the corner. There are battles within people to balance out their lives between family and lovers. There’s a distinct line and finite end to who matches with who, rather than season after season where it eventually becomes about everybody getting with everybody else. It’s like something in between The Disney Channel programs geared for younger teens and TV-14 shows like The Vampire Diaries. Sure, there are sometimes a bit of makeout or bed scenes, but they’re brief and generally just to show certain kinds of relationship progress. It depends on the drama. Most of it is hidden instead and left to your imagination, so you feel warm and happy about the couple instead of engaged in the physical displays. The build-up of the story makes that one kiss (or a few) the culmination of really strong feelings, because you’ve waited for it so long. It’s like the first season of a show, without follow-up seasons. It’s a bit like a new romance every time, it feels fresh and yet familiar.