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Audition programs captivate Korea

Popularity of talent contests reflects people’s desire for fair competition, fame

TV programs searching for talent among the public have always been around.

A KBS program called “Jeonguk Norae Jarang” (Korea Local Music Show) has been on air for more than 30 years, giving prizes to the best singers every week. But these programs were never really popular enough to create a major buzz among the public.

But after the Korean public went wild over the story of Huh Gak, the winner of Mnet’s talent show “Superstar K2” last year, almost every broadcaster, from cable to terrestrial, has rushed to make similar audition shows.

Korean young people, weary and burdened by fierce competition for university and work, went crazy for Huh’s win over John Park. Huh was a typical Korean guy who was not highly educated, poor, short and chubby and Park was a Korean-American who was handsome, tall and from a middle-class family.

Another network broadcaster MBC launched “Star Audition: The Great Birth” after the end of “Superstar K2” with a similar mentoring format and competition rules. “Star Audition” winner Baek Chung-gang, an ethnic Korean from China’s Yanbian, became a symbol for the “Korean dream come true.”

Now, audition programs are mushrooming on the local TV scene.

SBS is currently airing “Miracle Audition” to find actors and actresses, and plans to air “Diet Survival Victory” in September and “Audition Survival: K-pop Star” in December cooperating with three major entertainment agencies: SM, JYP and YG.

KBS is searching for a talented indie band through “Top Band” and a globally-competitive young talent in “Human Survival: Challenger.”

MBC recently wrapped up its open recruitment show “The New Recruit,” hiring three new announcers. The broadcaster is to air the second version of “Star Audition” in September to discover another talented singer.

Cable channel Mnet is preparing to air “Superstar K3” on Aug. 12 to discover another Huh Gak.

Another cable station tvN is airing “Korea’s Got Talent,” in which Choi Sung-bong, a 22-year-old who survived on the streets by selling gum and energy drinks after being orphaned at an early age, successfully reached the semifinal round last Saturday with his operatic vocal power.
Contestant Choi Sung-bong sings for the judges on “Korea’s Got Talent.” (tvN)
Contestant Choi Sung-bong sings for the judges on “Korea’s Got Talent.” (tvN)

Cable channel On Style is running a model contest “Challenge: Supermodel Korea.” It recently aired a program searching for a fashion designer called “Project Runway Korea Season 3.”

What’s behind the audition fever?

Experts said the surge in the number of audition programs reflects the Korean public’s general desire for fair competition in society.

“Viewers tend to have a fantasy that such an audition is fair and one’s ability will be recognized through a fair competition because, in reality, it is not,” Lee Joo-hee, professor of sociology department at Ewha Womans University, told The Korea Herald.

“They get a vicarious pleasure out of seeing an ordinary person becoming a star,” said Lee.

She added that the more capitalism advanced, the more popular such audition programs would become, as a more capitalistic society would be open to fair competition.

“When young people apply for a job, they have to face an ‘audition.’ That format is applied to a TV program and the viewers are used to that kind of format,” she said.

Chun Sang-jin, professor of sociology at Sogang University, had a similar view to Lee.

“Viewers want to see the spectacle of how contestants grow up and transform into a star. Figuratively speaking, they want to see the ‘process of making luxury goods,’” he said.

Chun is preparing a paper in which he claims that Korean society has changed to become what he called an “attention society” and that this change has resulted in the surging popularity of audition programs.

“In the past, people used to fear that somebody might be watching you ― just like in George Orwell’s ‘1984.’ But now, people are more afraid that nobody might be watching them,” he said.

“This change of sentiment has led to the frenzy over audition programs.”

Controversies remain

For the star aspirants who have talent and passion but lack physical attractiveness or wealth, the audition programs can serve as an opening in achieving their dreams.

For the broadcasters, they can raise viewer ratings.

And viewers get to participate in deciding who is most talented through SMS or online voting.

However, critics are skeptical about whether the current audition programs are really able to offer hopes and dreams for the ordinary.

Kim Hun-sick, pop culture and broadcasting industry critic, took the example of MBC’s “The New Recruit,” which selected three announcers through a series of open contests.

“The broadcaster initially said it would recruit ‘raw gemstones’ but those who won the final competition turned out to be ‘well-cut gemstones,’” said Kim, referring to the discovery that all three winners had received professional training at a private institute before applying for the MBC contest. Two of the winners had said during the contest that they dreamed of being an announcer because of the TV program.

Another pop culture critic Lee Moon-won said the upcoming SBS contest “Audition Survival: K-pop Star” may unintentionally hurt idol aspirants, who will face great uncertainty in becoming a star even if they win the contest and sign a contract with SM, JYP or YG.

“The pop market sentiment changes so quickly, let’s say, every six months. Even if they sign a contract with an entertainment agency, if they cannot debut in the market within one year for some reason, they can be erased from the public’s memory easily,” Lee said.

By Kim Yoon-mi (