IT'S TIME TO ABOLISH THE K-POP SURVIVAL SHOW
All 101 contestants were constantly exposed to intense physical and emotional pressure, with most of them still in their late teens to early 20s.
I still find it hard to believe that K-Pop has propelled itself into the mainstream in such a short span of time. It seems like only yesterday when I first heard of (and danced to) Nobody by Wonder Girls in the third grade. At the time, people at school often made fun of the foreign lyrics, incomprehensible to most of us, sung by teenagers with spiky hairstyles and matching neon-green outfits. Now, everyone and their moms and dogs are fans of at least one boy or girl group.
While Gangnam Style might be responsible for embedding Korean pop music in our collective consciousness, it would take BTS’ and Blackpink’s successful domination of the Western market to fully cement the genre’s position in mainstream music. We’ve all borne witness to how the industry has evolved from an eclectic entertainment powerhouse to a true cultural export and soft power—one with the ability to bridge international relations and shape public opinion. This is thanks to the adoring legions of fans who express their admiration in the form of digital streams, sales, and Twitter trending topics.
Since supporters are more loyal, more critical, and more powerful than ever before, management companies are banking on them to shape the future of the industry. Back in the day, artists were scouted on the streets or chosen after countless rounds of auditions, then subjected to years of rigorous training before debuting in the public eye. But now, survival shows are becoming the new norm.
These large-scale projects pit aspiring idols against one another to see who truly deserves a spot in the country’s most lucrative field. Each week, contestants are asked to perform increasingly demanding song, dance, or rap numbers, sometimes judged by a panel of mentors but always voted on by the Korean public. Those who crumble under the pressure and fail to rise to the challenge are eliminated, until what is left is the next generation of “it” boys or girls ready to take the world by storm.
But while other programs that follow this star search format only air performances, what sets survival shows apart is how they highlight the behind-the-scenes process: the moments often considered too real and raw to be circulated and consumed. Audiences are granted access to the screw-ups during rehearsal that are often met with harsh criticism from judges, the squabbles among trainees, and the occasional sobfest in front of the camera.
By allowing these contestants to appear more human and less like pre-packaged stars passing through a manufacturing line, regular viewers are inclined to identify with them and thus root for their personal growth and development throughout the process. As a result, we have fans rallying behind their “picks” and putting everything on the line to help them advance to the next round. It’s common practice for fansites (stan jargon for glorified stalkers) to distribute free promotional materials or even pay money to those who vote for their bets.
This degree of emotional investment was something I totally understood, as an avid fan of Mnet survival show Produce 101. I watched its second season as I reviewed for my college entrance tests, and relied on clips of Sorry, Sorry and Get Ugly stages for emotional support as I struggled with logarithmic functions. Though I enjoyed seeing each contestant give one electrifying performance after another, it became difficult to ignore the glaring flaws in the way the game was being played.
All 101 contestants were constantly exposed to intense physical and emotional pressure, with most of them still in their late teens to early 20s. Trainees are forced into rankings that determine how much exposure they get. Thus, they are often left to fend for themselves and work long hours without much food or sleep to make it past the threshold of elimination. Worst of all, this behavior is viewed as a sign of commitment, a reason to vote for them rather than an alarming cry for help.
And as if the amount of tension wasn’t enough already, there always seemed to be some form of scripted drama: a mix-up in voting criteria, a delinquent trainee, or a greedy group member who refused to work in a team. Mnet has been especially notorious for “evil-editing” participants, or showing their behavior out of context by splicing interview and rehearsal clips. This is why NU’EST’s Baekho was seen as a bossy asshole and Haknyeon of Cre.ker Entertainment always appeared greedy and unprofessional. Both were targets of unforgiving hate comments from the public as a result of their edited appearances
This seemingly endless drama finally culminated in the most unsatisfying finale I’ve had to sit through, to date. I couldn’t understand how those who persevered through such inhumane working conditions failed to make the cut. My favorite, Jonghyun or “Angel Leader,” mentored fledgling trainees while showing his expertise in dance and rap only to place 14th. Though it felt wrong to make accusations based on nothing but a hunch or a gut feel, the thought lingered in my mind, even when the final line-up had already debuted under the name Wanna One.
Thankfully, two years later, things started to make sense. During the last episode of the franchise’s most recent installment Produce X 101, viewers noticed certain numerical patterns in the vote tally displayed for each contestant. 272 of them filed a lawsuit that prompted an investigation by the Seoul Metropolitan Police. Months later, producer Ahn Joonyoung admitted to manipulating the rankings for all four seasons, eventually leading to his arrest for obstruction of business. X1, the boy band formed by the end of PDX101, was forced to prematurely disband after only four months together.
This inherent corruption shouldn’t come as a surprise to us anymore. After all, “the dark side of K-Pop” has spawned many a thinkpiece and exposé video over the past few years. Yet it still seems disappointing that a show with a deceivingly participatory premise prioritizes profit and thrives on human suffering. It’s high time for the industry to rethink what they consider as entertainment, and opt for compassionate ways to usher aspiring performers towards the spotlight they so crave.
In an article for The Korea Times, pop music critic Seo Jeong Min-gap says that it’s a challenge for broadcasters to break free from current trends and opt for something totally fresh. “But,” the piece notes “a growing number of producers are attempting to make their works look distinctive.” One way future shows can improve is obviously by treating contestants like actual people, rather than puppets they can manipulate in order to boost viewership. These journeys to stardom, and even the ones that fall short, should play out in the most authentic way possible, free from unnecessary drama and manipulation that could only compound their existing anxieties.
Seo also brought up the possibility of focusing on the music—”tell[ing] the viewers the history of certain genres and explaining the messages behind the songs” to create an experimental and fresh take on the typical format. Given that it’s never been done before, it may not guarantee handsome profits but if it cultivates a space where artists can explore the breadth and depth of their passion, it’s definitely worth a shot.
As fans, we may appear as mere bystanders who can’t do anything to move past the awareness stage. But our impact is far more resonant than we think. By refusing to indulge in trainees’ failures and rejections and investing instead in their aspirations and hopes, we begin to create a demand for more feel-good stories on the celebrity experience. Mnet recently tried to clean their image by launching Kingdom: Legendary War, a survival show of epic proportions that pitted six famous K-Pop groups against one another. But despite the heavy promotion and consistently extravagant production value, the predictable and rather painful rounds of competition angered viewers instead. In fact, not a single episode made it past 1% in ratings until the end of its run. If they know what’s good for them, I don’t see a continuation or second season in the works any time soon.
Overall, I think it’s pretty ironic that networks created survival shows with the power and influence of fans in mind, yet continue to underestimate both of these qualities we have. At this point, I think it’s best we remind them, and continue to mobilize others to do and think the same. We should let them know that we see right through their little charade, and refuse to participate in any games until they start playing by the rules.