COMPETITION IS entertaining especially when you are simply a spectator. The fun further intensifies when the competition is amongst charming idol trainees who are simply the modern, and the more attractive version of the Renaissance man: they can sing, act, rap, and dance to all genres. But what happens when there are a hundred of these stunning, talented individuals competing against one another? Such is a glimpse of the scene in the PRODUCE franchise, and the origins of its growing popularity reflect South Korea’s fascination with competition and rivalry.
PRODUCE 101: how it all started
The PRODUCE franchise was a production project under the television music channel Mnet in 2016. The program aimed to create a collaborative K-pop group, with trainees from various entertainment companies competing their way towards debut through a nation-wide SMS* voting system. Hence the audience are referred to as national producers**—the trainees’ fate is in the hands of the voters who eagerly support their favorite trainees behind the television screen. In this show, a large number of K-pop idol trainees compete against one another to progress through rounds of the battle royal, with the top 11 to 12 trainees guaranteed positions in the eventual debuting group***. The participants are required to sing, dance, and appeal to the audience to survive through the season of bloody competition for fame and glory. Four seasons have been produced to this day, with its final survivors becoming members of high-profile girl groups, I.O.I and IZ*ONE, and boybands, Wanna One and X1.
The first season—PRODUCE 101—enjoyed a considerable success, as their debuting group I.O.I won the Rookie of the Year Award at the Mnet Asian Music Awards (MAMA) in 2016. Following the first season’s success, three additional seasons went into production, also incorporating male versions of the original series. The show's heightening popularity was evidently shown by the high number of vote counts of the top, debuting members. According to the official Mnet database, while the top trainee in the first season emerged victorious after receiving approximately 850,000 votes, subsequent seasons of the PRODUCE franchise gained further participation from the national producers, with instances such as Kang Daniel, first place winner of PRODUCE 101: Season 2, receiving a surprising 1,578,837 votes in the final round****.
The origins of PRODUCE’s popularity can be traced back to three principal factors: entertainment in personality, survival, and idols. As victory is solely determined by vote count, participants try to survive the rounds by appealing to the voters with beautified looks, improvements in their dancing and singing skills, and above all, personality—voters tend to be attracted to personalities that maintain bright, enthusiastic, and passionate energy. For instance Kim Se-jeong, a trainee from Jellyfish, was a highlight in the first season. Kim Se-jeong qualified in the highest tier since the beginning of the show, as she was talented in both singing and dancing. She immediately caught the voters’ attention when she was assigned to a team with members of lower tiers for a collaborative performance task. In the preparation process, she showed patience and compassion by helping those who were behind, especially rookie Kim So-hye. Such was a critical act of altruism, as she prioritized her friend over ranking, despite the risk of losing time for her individual practice. This heavily attracted attention, being the first ever moment in the franchise a participant was seen helping out another during preparation. Kim Se-jeong and other former participants such as Chungha and Kang Daniel, all qualified to the show’s standards of talent and passion, paving a concrete path fortheir careers as successful K-pop idols.
Hierarchy is the foundational principle of this show, which can be deduced from the pyramid icon of the show’s official logo and stage set-up. The trainees are also grouped into rank-based levels, ranging from grade A to F; the evaluations are based on their performances throughout the show, triggering continuous anxiety as trainees are subjected to constant shifts across different ranks each week. Entertainment, here, is extracted from the participants’ struggles in climbing up the pyramid. All contestants rehearse for days and prepare captivating choreographies, not only to stand out amongst other competitors but to also show progress in their skills compared to their past performances—growth is a constant requirement throughout the seasons.
The element of survival, therefore, is particularly entertaining as the rankings among the trainees are determined mainly by the quality of the performances they prepare. Synchronized movement, harmonic singing, and acrobatic dances are presented by the trainees each week, enticing fans one episode after another. In addition to the charms of the participants mentioned above, the fluctuations in voting results keep the dedicated audience glued to their favorites throughout the season, as they suffer through the anxiety over their one-pick’s***** possible decline until the announcement of the final winners.
The next element is idol. The participants—both male and female—are both gorgeous and gifted. Voting is possible only once per episode; therefore fans are expected to commit to one favorite idol. The avid support for their wannabe idols can be observed in the immense billboards in subway stations that exhibit and promote some of the trainees. Fan-meets, concerts, and other events are organized by the respective record labels to meet the demands of the fans. The popularity of the individual trainees often continues after their contract expires with Mnet, as many resume their occupations as idols either as solo artists, or as a members of new K-pop idol groups. We are constantly met with portraits of Chungha and Kang Daniel on advertisement posters, television commercials, and even on bottles of soju.
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On the final episode of each season, the top two contestants walk down the pyramid and stand on stage awaiting the announcement of the ultimate winner of the season. A sea of eyes glaring at the victorious two in both admiration and jealousy floats around the pyramid. As the winner is announced and confetti cascades in pink and blue, bittersweet sentiment and blank void lingers amidst vibrant chaos. This scene is witnessed by millions of fans through the TV screen; here we think, the participants’ charming personalities, along with the country’s fascination with competition and survival, is what keep idol survival shows alive in South Korea.
*SMS: Short message service
**Direct translation of 국민프로듀서
***The number of final survivors guaranteed to debut differs for each season.
*****One-pick: nickname given to the voter’s favorite participant