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Reality shows raise concerns by zooming in on private lives of people

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Reality show
Reality show "Love Again" follows divorced celebrity couples reuniting and living under the same roof after their split. Courtesy of TV Chosun

Glut of 'observational' reality shows leaves viewers scratching heads

By Lee Gyu-lee

Since MBC's popular reality show, "I Live Alone," was introduced in 2013 offering viewers an up-close look at the private lives of single celebrities, other programs that look into the lives of stars have become a staple of Korean television programming.

Almost a decade later, such programs, which have been named "observational reality shows," continue to be hugely popular with networks pushing out similar programs while attempting to find new themes and even expanding their cast members to include non-celebrities.

However, such a rise has led shows to compete to get even more up-close into the lives of cast members, raising concerns about invading their privacy and causing side effects, especially on minors who are cast members appearing under the consent of their parents.

Observational reality shows have had varying themes from the sex lives of married couples in "Doomed Marriage," and teenage parenthood in "Teenage Parents," to the lives of divorced couples in "Love Again."

"Love Again," which earned a second season last month following the popularity of the first one in late 2020, invites divorced celebrity couples to live under the same roof again. The show zooms in on a former couple and the reasons that led them to split up and how they might redefine their relationship.

The reunion of one of the ex-couples ― singer Eli Kim and TV personality Ji Yeon-soo ― caught the attention of viewers, broadcasting heart-breaking moments. One scene showed their young son clinging onto his father, who he had not seen for a while, and begging his parents to live together.

The show achieved its highest viewership rating of 7 percent only about four episodes into the season.

Scenes from a spinoff of the reality dating show
Scenes from a spinoff of the reality dating show "Divorced Singles' / Courtesy of MBN

The reality dating show, "Divorced Singles," about people who have been divorced taking another chance to find love, rolled out a spinoff show revolving around two of the cast members who became a couple through the program.

The spinoff show, in observational format, revolved around the couple's entire process of becoming a family, as they prepare for their wedding and meet each other's family. There were tear-jerking moments as the program showed them settling into each other's lives, showing the woman's daughter from the previous marriage forming a bond with her soon-to-be stepfather and the couple finding happiness in a new marriage.

Pop culture critic Kim Hern-sik said that featuring child cast members is likely to bring up different privacy issues going forward as they are not old enough to express consent.

"Those children could be raising questions on their right to privacy in the future. As they grow up, there might be footage or parts of their life that they might have not wished to disclose to the public, which will become an issue," he said. "Even though they (the cast members) are parents, the children are not their property. So it is questionable if shows featuring children are really necessary."

He also pointed out that the observational shows feature product placement leading viewers to believe that cast members really use the products in day-to-day life and claims the practice threatens the "reality" factor of such shows as it could mislead viewers.

"There's a lot of possibility for product placement to overshadow the authenticity (of reality format shows) … In many cases, they would use advertised products or visit a place that they don't normally use or go to. But it's seen as if they are part of their lives," he said. "As the themes and concepts of observational shows increase, there comes the issue of attempting to capitalize on their personal lives and missing the original purpose of the whole thing."

The cast members of the reality show 'Teenage Parents
The cast members of the reality show 'Teenage Parents" came under spotlight after the mother was reported for domestic abuse against the father and the baby. Courtesy of MBN

As the reality shows zoom in more and more on the cast members' lives, their private matters have overtly become a target of the public eye.

Famous singer Im Chang-jung's wife, Seo Ha-yan, came under the spotlight in March after making her first public appearance in the reality show, "Same Bed, Different Dreams 2," which focuses on celebrity couples' lives.

Shortly after she joined the show, her actions came under scrutiny from the public, drawing unwanted attention to a photo she posted on social media. People criticized Seo for taking a selfie while driving and neglecting her children in the car from wearing their seatbelts, leading her to issue a formal apology.

The cast members of "Teenage Parents" stirred controversy last month when a young father from the show revealed on social media that his wife threatened him and their newborn child with a knife.

"Our team is doing our best to remain unbiased and to support the couple to reach an amicable solution," the show's production team said in a statement.

However, the show outraged viewers by airing further episodes zooming in on the couple's fights and their issues.

An avid 29-year-old TV viewer, surnamed Choi, said she began to question the level of appropriateness of reality shows nowadays.

"I started to avoid watching those shows because it feels like they are becoming more and more provocative … As I'm watching them, I would wonder whether I really need to know the extent of their personal matters," she said. "Also, even though the shows say they have different themes, the formats are the same, so I came to lose interest."

However, Kim noted that the TV industry will continue to roll out such shows.

"There are no other options. When the broadcasters and networks compete with each other with reality shows, there really isn't a format that differentiates one network's show from another's," he said.

"(Currently) music and observational shows are two major formats that are the most popular among TV shows. And as long as people seek shows with authentic elements, observational shows will continue to come out whichever theme it would be. And from the networks' perspective, in terms of inserting product placement and production budget, those format shows are convenient and cost-efficient, so they continue to make them."

Lee Gyu-lee

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