The Cruelty of K-pop Survival Shows

The Cruelty of K-pop Survival Shows

By: Caroline MacLellan

June 19th, 2023

K-pop continues to be an industry that draws in over 150 million fans from across the globe. Typically, K-pop groups are created by entertainment companies, such as SM Entertainment, HYBE, and YG Entertainment. They choose the members, the group name, and more. But in the last six or seven years, a multitude of entertainment companies have decided to send their most promising trainees to what K-pop fans call survival shows. 

Survival shows are reality competition shows that typically feature over 100 trainees from a variety of companies, who then compete in singing, dancing and more to showcase their skills. The fate of these trainees lies in the viewers, who vote for their favorites to debut in the show’s final lineup. If a trainee doesn’t receive enough votes, they are eliminated, and the other contestants trek on.

While these shows are wildly popular among K-pop fans, they also face a fairly large amount of criticism. Of the many K-pop survival shows to air in the last seven years, the “Produce 101” series has outshined them all. Produced by broadcasting company Mnet, the first season of “Produce 101” aired in 2016 and debuted girl group I.O.I. Subsequently, Mnet aired “Produce 101” Season 2 in 2017, “Produce 48” in 2018 and “Produce X 101” in 2019. The resulting groups include Wanna One, IZ*ONE, and X1. 

Following the debut of boygroup X1 in 2019, Mnet was accused by fans who noticed suspicious voting patterns of rigging the final lineup of X1. After police investigation, it was revealed that the producer of the series was involved in vote manipulation, and was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison. The court also revealed that voting manipulation occurred in previous seasons of the “Produce” series. Furthermore, Mnet producers and managers received sentences for vote manipulation in another 2017 survival show titled “Idol School”, which formed the girl group fromis_9.

Despite the controversy surrounding their previous survival shows, Mnet created a new series of survival shows, the first titled “Girls Planet 999”. After the debut of the resulting girl group, Kep1er, “Boys Planet 999” was announced. The show wrapped about two months ago, and announced the upcoming July debut of ZEROBASEONE. 

Mnet denied voting manipulation for both shows and outlined their methods to prevent voting manipulation and mistakes. While the reassurance regarding voting may have assuaged fans’ worries, survival shows have plenty of other issues that bring into question the morality and fairness of such programs, as well as some of the more cruel parts of putting young men and women on a screen to compete with one another. 

One of the most notorious criticisms of survival shows, not just those produced by Mnet, is what fans call evil editing. Evil editing consists of the show’s editors taking out key contextual clips that make both trainees and mentors look bad. Sometimes, they take clips and audio from entirely different parts of the show and edit them together, thus resulting in suspenseful, but often misleading situations. 

For example, trainee Fu Yaning from “Girls Planet 999” was forced by Mnet to diss another contestant, former CLC member Choi Yujin. Mnet later edited the clip by inserting shocked reactions from Yujin and the judges, despite being the one that directed Yaning to say such harsh words. As a result, Yaning received negative reactions from fans. 

Because of situations like these, fans have long complained about evil editing tactics and how survival show producers evil edit certain trainees in order to manipulate their popularity. Despite these complaints, the evil editing has not decreased at all. Furthermore, evil editing goes hand in hand with screen time manipulation.

Certain trainees get more screen time than others, thus affecting their popularity. Trainees with less screen time are unable to routinely show their talent to the show’s viewers. Since the viewers control the debut lineup through voting, trainees that viewers rarely see suffer from low popularity, even if they’re incredibly talented. In particular, foreign trainees get the short end of the stick, often receiving less screen time and rarely debuting in the final lineup.

The differences in treatment between Korean and non-Korean trainees becomes evident when you look at elimination results, as well as the final lineups of each group. In “Boys Planet”, 63.4% of trainees eliminated in the first round were non-Koreans. Zhang Hao, the winner of “Boys Planet”, is also the very first non-Korean to win a survival show and become the center of the group. Zhang Hao is also one of only two non-Koreans to debut in ZEROBASEONE, the other being Chinese member Ricky. Other survival show debut lineups are similar.

Survival shows are also brutal in other ways. They can be cruel, but also grueling hard work. In a live broadcast after the end of “Girls Planet 999”, trainee Liang Qiao described having to film for 40 hours without sleep. Many trainees are also under the age of 18, bringing into question how well survival shows are following child labor laws. 

K-pop survival shows clearly have a multitude of concerning issues. Even so, they remain incredibly popular. Most K-pop fans know just how cruel these shows can be to the idol trainees that they love. But it’s exactly because they love these trainees that they don’t want to destroy their hopes of debuting in the next big group. Survival shows capitalize on the hopes and dreams of promising young idols, who are almost always charming and lovable.

Fans want to make idols’ dreams come true, even if it means supporting a survival program notorious for mistreating their trainees. So as long as survival show producers continue to create these shows and present hopeful, new faces to fans, survival shows will continue to be a commercial success.  

Caroline MacLellan is a senior studying Professional and Public Writing, with a minor in Japanese. In her free time, she loves watching Korean dramas, reading manga and creative writing.