If one tuned into cable TV sometime in the past two decades, they might be familiar with a number of Western music competition shows. American Idol, where individuals compete for the attention of the American public, birthed stars like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Or X Factor, which created groups like Fifth Harmony, One Direction, and Little Mix that dominated much of the 2010s.
But if one were to follow the K–Pop industry, one would find a slew of competition shows, pitting young trainees against each other for the sole purpose of making it into the coveted group. K–Pop survival shows are American music competitions on steroids, where people’s hopes and dreams, in the literal sense, depend on making it to the final lineup. Through the course of the show, viewers see the trainees toil: endlessly polishing their dancing, singing, or even working on making their personalities palatable to the judges and to an increasingly international audience.
Show after show, the cycle repeats itself. Trainees run in a hamster wheel that either deems their hard work worthy or cruelly spits them out. The results of the system are alluring: groups like I.O.I, IZ*ONE, and TWICE all saw massive success with an adoring fan base eager to support them. But only a lucky few that survive will reap the benefits. This unnatural process is plagued with allegations of mistreatment, purposeful editing by executives to favor one contestant over another, and actual rigging of votes. How has such a system continued to be so successful?
Perhaps the biggest reason is the very nature of the industry: K–Pop thrives on fan interaction with idols, and vice versa. It’s a mutually symbiotic relationship—some may argue it’s parasocial—where a group’s success depends on whether or not their fans like them and choose to interact with them. A strong fanbase is why groups like Girls’ Generation and BTS can sustain their careers, even during periods of hiatuses. Platforms like WeVerse, Bubble, and formerly VLive feed into this symbiotic relationship by offering fans a view into their favorite idols’ lives.
Historically, groups are made solely at a company’s discretion. Members of Girls’ Generation, Wonder Girls, and Super Junior were all chosen via their company’s selective debuting process, with little input from outside forces. With K–Pop reality shows, the general public is able to have some influence over how groups are made. One of the earliest shows to use public opinion is Sixteen, a little–known program produced by JYP Entertainment and Mnet. The show had 16 contestants, and each week, JYP used a combination of team missions, company trainers’ input, and public votes to eliminate contestants to form the now globally renowned group, TWICE. The show wasn’t a major hit, only managing to crack the top 10 in Korean TV viewership with the finale, but this show, along with other early survival shows like WIN: Who Is Next (which produced WINNER) and KARA Project (which added a member to girl group KARA), showed that the Korean public wanted input in how their favorite groups look like.
Introducing this format to a larger audience boosted the growth of such shows. The biggest success of the K-Pop survival show concept would be Mnet’s Produce series, forming groups like IZ*ONE, Wanna One, and I.O.I. These shows had many more trainees from different companies, who competed in cutthroat evaluations and missions, all vying for a few select spots in the final group. It is these programs that show K-Pop at its best, and its worst.
On one hand, the fate of the groups was determined by viewers via a website, text, or mobile app voting. This system allowed international fans to participate, ultimately expanding the genre. This move also paved the way for non–Korean members in idol groups; in fact, all three of the groups mentioned above had at least one foreign trainee making it to the final lineup. This dynamic made the groups more marketable to foreign countries, and even inspired spinoffs in China and Japan.
However, such a high–stakes environment also fostered mistreatment and scandals from many behind the scenes. Numerous reports from eliminated trainees spoke out about unfair training conditions, like lack of bathroom privileges and fewer meals, that border on violating basic human rights. The shows were also accused of multiple instances of “evil editing”—in which Mnet intentionally edited contestants in order to sway the audience's opinion. But the biggest controversy to arise from this ultra–competitive process would be the Mnet voting manipulation scandal, where the executives of the Produce and Idol School series were found guilty of manipulating total vote counts to prematurely eliminate some contestants, and boost others. As it turns out, these survival shows also make lucrative money, with the labels managing the winning group getting up to 50 percent of profits from the show. The parties involved were later fined and imprisoned, but it demonstrated how companies and external forces are willing to resort to bribery and fraud to influence results.
Despite being involved with such a massive scandal, Mnet subtly revamped the Produce system with Girls Planet 999, and later, Boys Planet. Increasing their focus on the international audience, GP999 had 99 contestants, split into three groups representing their native countries of Korea, Japan, and China. To avoid allegations of rigging, the company hired a third-party “observer system” to oversee any vote manipulation. Yet, the show is still plagued with issues, from the continuation of their infamous “evil editing,” to blatant racism to the foreign idols as described by many Chinese trainees. But all these problems seemed to not matter when the show continued to attract audiences. Some shows attract viewers from over 100 countries, all hoping to support the trainees they want to see on the K–Pop stage.
So survival competition shows are here to stay, but what is in the future for a format that harbors both talent and vices? 2023 especially saw an influx of new variety shows such as Queendom Puzzle, R U Next?, and A2K, each with their own unique circumstances and issues. The fair treatment of all trainees should be a priority, and eliminating “evil editing,” as silly as it sounds, would be a big step in ensuring each trainee has a chance to showcase their talents. More rules and regulations, whether through law or third–party observer systems, should be implemented to make sure that the livelihoods of trainees are not threatened. Transparency from the producers would instill more faith in the audience in the process, so presenting vote totals and how they were tabulated would ease some fears. Lastly, if one finds a trainee they like through this highly competitive system, offering support—whether it be voting for them or participating in fan-created events—is a morale booster for the many young idols that undergo this strenuous process.
While the survival show system has its flaws, they don’t seem to be disappearing anytime soon. But at the end of the day, watching the stories of trainees hoping to debut is inspiring, and their work ethic and efforts should not be understated. Becoming a fan of a survival–show–made group is a unique experience, and one can only hope that increased pressure from fans demanding fairness and transparency will one day make this grueling system a more equitable one.