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Why is Korean entertainment scene flooded with audition programs?

JYP Entertainment's founder-producer Park Jin-young, left, and PSY, the
JYP Entertainment's founder-producer Park Jin-young, left, and PSY, the "Gangnam Style" (2012) star and head of K-pop agency P NATION, will appear as the hosts of SBS's upcoming audition program "LOUD." Courtesy of SBS

By Dong Sun-hwa

The Korean entertainment scene is experiencing a boom in audition programs.

Following the smash success of programs like "Superstar K" (2009-16), "K-Pop Star" (2011-17), "Produce 101" (2016-19) and "Miss Trot" (2019-2021) ― which not only scored impressive viewership ratings but also propelled numerous aspiring singers and lesser-known celebrities to stardom ― more producers are devoting themselves to creating similar shows.

Next month, local broadcaster SBS is set to launch "LOUD" in cooperation with JYP Entertainment founder-producer Park Jin-young and PSY, the "Gangnam Style" (2012) star and head of K-pop agency P NATION. MBC will also air a new audition program in November with producer Han Dong-chul, who was behind the success of "Produce 101." Mnet's "Girls Planet 999" is in the pipeline later this year auditioning aspiring female singers.

There's a reason why viewers love audition programs. They can take part in the nail-biting competition through voting and support their favorite contenders. Many people also believe these programs are impartial, because the contestants have to rely on only their musical talents to compete with each other. On top of that, they are often captivated by the stories of the contenders, most of whom have experienced twists and turns in their lives to pursue music careers.

"Viewers today seem to have grown addicted to these survival shows," pop music critic Seo Jeong Min-gap told The Korea Times. "Many of them may find other music programs, which do not pit contestants against each other, to be quite boring."

As for broadcasters and TV networks, the rationale behind their preference is more obvious ― these shows are lucrative. Since many of them have proven to be successful in terms of viewership, it is easier to attract sponsors. For instance, TV Chosun's trot audition program "Mr. Trot" garnered a whopping 35.7 percent viewership rating last year, an all-time high for a cable channel program in Korea.

Lim Young-woong, the winner of TV Chosun's trot audition show,
Lim Young-woong, the winner of TV Chosun's trot audition show, "Mr. Trot" (2020), rose to meteoric stardom thanks to the program. Courtesy of New Era Project
Critics also point out that the hit songs from the shows also play vital roles in making profits.

"The songs featured in popular audition shows can grab the public's attention and secure the top positions on music streaming charts for months, as evidenced by the case of VVS (2020), a track unveiled on Mnet's hip-hop competition program Show Me the Money 9," music critic Han Dong-yoon said. "The performance videos can also be profitable if they attract viewers on YouTube. All these factors can allow the broadcasters to make consistent profits."

Casting is easier, too. The production team merely has to post a "wanted ad" to recruit hundreds of contestants instead of calling everyone and juggling their schedules.

Competition shows, however, have also caused a stink. Some productions, such as Mnet's "Produce 101" which gave birth to K-pop acts I.O.I, Wanna One, IZ*ONE and X1, have triggered debate over fairness.

Project boy band X1 was formed in the fourth season of Mnet's
Project boy band X1 was formed in the fourth season of Mnet's "Produce 101." Courtesy of Swing Entertainment

In March, the Seoul Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that put "Produce 101" director Ahn Joon-young behind bars for two years. He was accused of manipulating voting results in favor of certain contestants and receiving bribes from the K-pop management companies that fielded the contestants. Recently, prosecutors also sought a year-and-a-half jail term for the executive producers of Mnet's other survival show "Idol School," over vote manipulation. All these incidents have dealt a critical blow to the credibility of audition programs.

In addition, an increasing number of viewers appear to have grown weary of the cliche-ridden format.

"It can be challenging for broadcasters to defy the current trend and make something completely fresh," critic Seo said. "It is hard to think outside the box and also quite risky. But a growing number of producers are attempting to make their works look distinctive."

In fact, TV Chosun's "Miss Trot" and JTBC's "Sing Again" are often cited as examples of creative deviations. "Miss Trot" brought the spotlight on trot ― a Korean music genre which was often thought of as old-fashioned and for the older generation ― and successfully created a buzz among people of all generations. "Sing Again" differentiated itself by featuring as contenders "forgotten" singers who have been mostly off the public's radar.

Critics predict that the number of audition programs will continue to rise at least for a while. In fact, numerous industry insiders these days are aiming to make good use of these shows to target the global music market. SM Entertainment, home to prominent K-pop acts like EXO and NCT, announced recently it would launch a new audition program with U.S. production company MGM this year to single out the members for NCT-Hollywood, a new sub-unit of NCT, in the U.S. Meanwhile, Entertainment behemoth CJ ENM is also slated to produce an audition show to form a new boy band based in Latin America.

K-pop boy band NCT / Courtesy of SM Entertainment
K-pop boy band NCT / Courtesy of SM Entertainment

"With K-pop's global ascent, more people around the world are dreaming of becoming K-pop stars," Han noted. "Given that foreign members can help a K-pop group build a stronger global fan base, more programs for non-Korean singer hopefuls are likely to be created in the future."

But these competition shows need improvements, too.

"The contestants should be treated better," Seo pointed out. "These musicians need enough compensation and should not be just exploited as a tool to boost viewership."

Han echoed this sentiment, saying, "The broadcasters should not edit their programs in ways that distort truths to focus the limelight on certain contestants and thus seek to raise TV ratings."

Both agreed that the broadcasters need to strive to create a new format other than auditions, although this can be a tough job.

"Broadcasters should not merely jump on the bandwagon," Han said.

Seo elaborated, "They have to be experimental in some ways even if this does not guarantee handsome profits. On top of that, I think audition programs should provide more details about music ― if they tell the viewers the history of certain genres and explain the messages behind the songs, this would make the programs more appealing."


Dong Sun-hwa sunhwadong@koreatimes.co.kr


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