K-pop survival shows have revolutionised the industry, with millions of viewers tuning in to watch their favourite trainees compete for a spot in the debut team. These shows have created K-pop idols who have gone on to achieve massive success, both locally and internationally. Seventeen, Twice, Enhypen, Kep1er, and IZ*ONE are just a few examples of K-pop groups that have gained worldwide recognition and fame through survival shows. The popularity of these groups and their commendable success is a testament to the effectiveness of survival shows in discovering new talent and preparing them for stardom.
Besides the groups mentioned above, there are numerous other K-pop groups that have been formed through survival shows. There are two main types of K-pop survival shows: the first type which features contestants from different entertainment companies, such as Girls Planet 999 and Produce X 101, provides aspiring idols the opportunity to showcase their skills and compete with others from different companies. The second type of show features contestants who are all under the same company, such as I-Land with trainees from Big Hit Music and Stray Kids where trainees are under JYP Entertainment. These shows focus on training and preparing the contestants to become a cohesive group that is ready to debut.
With outstanding performances and plenty of suspenseful drama, it is clear why fans find these contests so entertaining. While the popularity of K-pop survival shows can be very beneficial to the contestants, the exploitative nature has received its fair share of criticism and has become a controversial topic in the industry.
When trainees join survival shows, they are able to gain more exposure and opportunities in the industry as well as showcase their skills to a wider audience and connect with guest mentors and judges who are greatly experienced. Even if they are not selected for the final debut team, these interactions provide valuable networking opportunities for the trainees and allow them to learn from professionals in the field.
One notable example of a trainee who found success after appearing on a survival show is Jungkook from the internationally renowned K-pop group, BTS. He made his first appearance on the Mnet survival program, Superstar K, where he was later eliminated. Nevertheless, his talents and potential did not go unnoticed as he caught the attention of numerous other agencies, including Big Hit Entertainment, and went on to become a member of one of the biggest groups in K-pop history. This success story demonstrates how survival shows can serve as a launching pad for a successful career in the highly competitive K-pop industry.
Moreover, the following and recognition from fans which the trainees receive can open doors to opportunities for solo activities or future group debuts. The popularity of shows like Produce 101 can be attributed to their ability to connect the audience with the contestants, building a loyal and supportive fanbase for trainees. For example, Twice, who established a solid fanbase before they even debuted through Sixteen,became one of the most popular K-pop girl groups.
Aside from discovering new talents, survival shows provide a unique window into the K-pop industry and the gruelling journey one must undertake to become a successful idol. These shows offer viewers a glimpse into the intense and demanding training process that is a hallmark of the K-pop industry.
Participants are put through a rigorous training program that includes singing, dancing, language, and performance coaching. These sessions often last for hours on end and require immense levels of discipline, focus, and commitment. Audiences get to see first-hand the blood, sweat, and tears that go into creating a polished and professional performance, making it easier for them to appreciate the talent and artistry of K-pop idols.
K-pop survival shows unravel the behind the scenes of the K-pop industry and the amount of effort needed to succeed as an idol. As the shows are transparent in showcasing the challenges and struggles faced by contestants in vocal trainings and dance rehearsals, even the emotional toll that the competition can take, it dispels myths and misconceptions about the industry itself. For example, the belief that K-pop idols are merely manufactured puppets is proven wrong as shows highlight the tremendous work ethic and tenacity of idols that pave the way to their success.
No matter how much the industry tries to paint K-Pop survival shows as huge stepping stones for trainees and idols alike, not everything surrounding it is glitz and glam. In recent years, K-Pop survival shows have been repeatedly littered in controversies and most of this stems from the fact that the producers of these shows focus on one thing and one thing only, drama. This is deeply rooted in how production companies exploit the trainees for their own benefit. Shows like My Teenage Girl in 2021 pit trainees as young as twelve years old against each other to compete for a spot to debut. Under pressuring circumstances, these young trainees may face mental stress and exhaustion as they push themselves to their limits to make every performance count.
Questions are often brought up about how ethical, healthy and safe these shows really are as the mental and physical health of trainees are at stake. The unjust mistreatment towards the trainees can be seen by the long hours of practice and filming that have become the norm in these shows. In 2021, broadcasting station Mnet premiered a new all-female survival show known as Girls Planet 999 which brought trainees from Korea, China and Japan together to compete for a spot in a new nine-membered girl group that later became known as Kep1er. The broadcasting station vowed that the show would take the necessary actions to ensure that the health of the participants were prioritised. However, in October 2021, former contestant, Xu Zi Yin, spoke lightly on the appalling conditions that she had faced.
“I hadn’t slept for 30 hours and hadn’t eaten anything for 12 hours. I was thirsty and only drank two sips of water before going on stage. I don’t know how I was able to walk up there,” she said in her livestream on Weibo. By speaking out, not only did she expose the unhealthy lifestyles practised during the show, she also brought to light the exploitation of contestants in survival shows, which enraged netizens around the globe.
The brutal conditions of survival shows are not the only reason why the shows are painted in a bad light. Ever heard of the saying, bad publicity is still publicity? Well, some entertainment companies take this saying literally. These companies send less competent trainees to shows in order for them to gain pre-debut fame. These trainees often get a lot of airtime showing their performances because they are shocking, and can serve as the start of the trainees’ character development. Although this is a great strategy to get more eyes on the trainees, it is detrimental to the contestants as it can cause them embarrassment and lower their confidence in performing.
As it is the nature of these shows, the trainees, regardless of their skill level, are required to perform for an audience. This results in trainees who each have different years of training performing alongside each other so that it creates a drastic difference in performance quality. Performances may not have a professional standard as some trainees are not ready to perform on stage for hundreds and thousands. A prime example of this would be in the second mission of Produce 48, that is the group battle evaluations, where the team “SNACK” left viewers shocked by their rendition of Boombayah by Blackpink. It was later labelled as “Hellbayah”. Consisting of four Japanese members from AKB48 and two Korean trainees, the team’s performance was a complete disaster and the team leader, Han Chowon, was the group’s only hope as she had the longest training experience. She did her best to lead the team but the stark differences in skill level could not go unnoticed. In the end, the performance went down in history as the worst performance of the season.
Ironically, survival shows have a tendency of perfecting the benchmark for trainees. Netizens and fans of the show play into this narrative as they disapprove of trainees who do not fit their standards. A trainee is expected to have it all: the looks, voice, dance skills and more. These unrealistic expectations can negatively affect the chances of their debut which can be seen when, time and time again, the trainees who do not fit into these ideals get ruthlessly criticised by trainers and fans alike. For instance, in Boys Planet, a 2023 survival show, many trainees on the show are known for their stunning looks. Trainee Yoon Jongwoo, in particular, has seen a remarkable increase in his rankings throughout the show for his talents. However, as his popularity skyrocketed, he started getting criticised for his appearance which did not fit the Korean beauty standard. Many believed that he did not have the looks to be a successful idol and bashed him. As a whole, this situation shows how cruel the industry and its standards are to these aspiring K-Pop idols.
K-pop survival shows may be an entertaining concept on the surface, but many disturbing cases have come to light and brought questions about their legitimacy as a whole.
Many avid K-pop survival show fans mention the concept of “evil editing” in passing when expressing their disheartened feelings towards these shows. Evil editing, also known as manipulative editing, is when editors of a broadcasting station put together clips and audios to misconstrue the narrative of a contestant in a show. Most of the time, evil editing is done to create suspense and dramatic outcomes for sections of shows. A broadcasting station who is notorious for evil editing is none other than Mnet.
Over the years, Mnet has consecutively produced successful survival shows but it often finds itself in hot water because of its editing techniques. These tactics to garner attention are destructive, not only for the trainees and trainers, but also for the broadcasting company itself. Trainees and trainers are vulnerable to disrepute because of the power editing has in manipulating the truth of the situation. Contextual clues are thrown out of the window and any clip which is deemed suitable to the created narrative is used. Viewers who do not know better will believe anything they see on the screen and thus, the negative image in which these trainees and trainers are portrayed as, are thought of as the truth. Later on, when the truth is finally revealed, the broadcasting company, in this case Mnet, would be thrown into a whirlwind of criticism from the public.
To prevent the possibility of slander from surfacing, Mnet requires the contestants and their companies to sign contracts so that they never speak of their shows negatively, as mentioned by Xu Zi Yin in her online live stream. Despite this, there have been instances where participants and judges openly spoke out about these unethical acts. Trainee Liang Qiao from Girls Planet 999 spoke about her experience with evil editing during the show. Liang Qiao had participated in the show with her twin sister and a scene was edited to make it seem that she had cried because of her sister’s actions. However, in her livestream, she clarified that the actual context of the scene was, she had just found out about her low rankings in the show.
Other than Mnet, JTBC, the broadcasting company for MIXNINE also evil edited their contestants in the 2017 show. The show’s concept revolved around the founder of YG Entertainment, Yang Hyunsuk, visiting entertainment companies around South Korea and scouting for trainees and idols for the show. Although this seemed like an amazing opportunity for less popular idols and current trainees to gain exposure, this wasn’t the case for some of the contestants. Bace Camp Studios’ Nam Yujin, better known as Eyedi, was a participant who had high hopes of getting her name out there. However, during her audition, she was portrayed as someone who despised idols. Nevertheless, she worked as hard as the other trainees in the show and earned herself a spot in the final debut lineup, refuting the initial image that evil editing had portrayed her in.
Manipulative editing is not the only problem that comes with K-pop survival shows. Unbalanced screen time distribution is another rampant issue in these shows. It is a known fact that not all trainees are able to be shown during a single episode, especially when there are possibly more than hundreds of them in a show. Nevertheless, it becomes apparent that broadcasting companies have their eye on certain trainees to boost their popularity when they appear consistently throughout the show. On the other hand, there are trainees who do not get even the tiniest bit of screen time to appeal to the audience. Their performances might not even be aired and a mere few seconds of their reactions on screen could be all they are given.
The competitiveness for airtime can even cause more complications for trainees. In an interview, former contestant of Produce 48, Alex Christine now known as AleXa, stated that she had gotten an injury while practising for her performance of the song “Peekaboo” by Red Velvet. Despite training to the point of an injury, she barely got any screen time throughout her time on the show which caused her to get eliminated early on in the show and crushed her dreams of debuting in the final group.
Not only that, inadequate screen time deprives talented and deserving trainees of the attention they deserve. Undoubtedly, a handful of the astonishing talents of certain trainees are highlighted. But as we know, broadcasting companies are looking to create an interesting show with whatever methods they can possibly use. If a trainee cannot provide broadcast-worthy material to the production crew, they get swept under the rug as if they don’t exist. The biggest example of this would be Kim Sohye from Produce 101 Season 1. In the first evaluation, Sohye shocked viewers with her uncoordinated performance despite her beautiful visuals. Editors jumped at the opportunity to make her one of the main stars of the show, knowing that people would want to see more of her. Sohye consistently improved throughout the show and even debuted as a member of I.O.I (the final debut group). Although she proved herself, many questioned if she would have gotten the same amount of attention if she had more average skills in the beginning of the show.
These problems, however, seem miniscule when compared to one of the biggest scandals that a survival show can find themselves in. Vote manipulation is an issue which misleads the audience and causes a breach of trust. Usually, these cases happen when entertainment companies use methods of bribery to get the producers of a show to manipulate the rankings in order for their trainees to place in the debut group, albeit, these cases rarely become known to the idols who were rigged, let alone the public. Nevertheless, there is one apparent case which comes to mind when speaking of this topic.
In 2019, Mnet premiered their latest rendition of the ever popular Produce 101 franchise. Produce X 101 brought 101 trainees to fight for their spot in the final 11-membered boy group. Just like any season, the show which aired from May to July 2019 was emotional, inspiring and entertaining as it kept viewers on the edge of their seats while waiting for the final debut group to be formed. On July 19th 2019, the final group was created under the name of X1. The members consisted of Kim Yohan, Kim Wooseok, Han Seungwoo, Song Hyeongjun, Cho Seungyoun, Son Dongpyo, Lee Hangyul, Nam Dohyon, Cha Junho, Kang Minhee and Lee Eunsang. However, among the happy tears and speeches of gratitude, was a bigger obstacle coming their way.
A few days after their formation, speculations of voting manipulation started surfacing after fans noticed a repetition between the votes of the chosen members which made them cry foul. As the issue grew bigger, outraged fans threatened to take legal action, leading to the police opening an investigation into the controversy, a mere eight days after the show wrapped. The investigations opened a can of worms that lead them to the distressing acts of Ahn Joonyoung, the directing producer of the Produce 101 franchise. It was found that all seasons of the franchise had been manipulated. In the end, Ahn Joon Young, Kim Yong Bum (the chief producer) and five entertainment company representatives were sentenced to imprisonment for their unethical acts.
Apart from the unjustly eliminated trainees, there were also other victims in the case. X1’s idol dreams were killed as the members’ agencies could not come to an agreement of settlement. The group disbanded on January 6th 2020, only fulfilling seven months of their five year contract. Lee Hangyul, a member of X1, said in an interview, “It was one of the most disheartening experiences of my life…The team wanted to do more. I really feel that (our disbandment) was unfortunate.” IZ*ONE, the only other active group from the series, also faced a prolonged hiatus during the investigations. They faced multiple indefinite postponements of new music and their movie. All in all, there were no winners in the story and many potential careers were ruined due to the greed of those in power.
Given their long lists of past scandals and controversies, it isn’t any wonder that fans are left sceptical and wary of survival shows. The exploitation and mistreatment of contestants have caused an uproar among fans, leading to protests and calls for fairer treatment. While these programs can provide audiences with a glimpse into the hard work and dedication needed to become an idol, the lack of transparency and surreptitious editing can make it difficult for viewers to trust these survival shows. But, whether or not the programs will successfully address the issues and eliminate the dark side of K-pop survival shows is something that has yet to be seen.
Written By: Trezshur and Wen Li
Edited by: Caitlin