[WHAT’S ON KOREAN TV]Pop shows' intelligence underwhelms

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[WHAT’S ON KOREAN TV]Pop shows' intelligence underwhelms

What could be the worst television program in Korea? From a pool of several strong candidates, the Citizens' Network for Cultural Reform, a civic group, recently picked "Live! Pop Songs," on SBS-TV at 4 p.m. Sundays.

Two similar programs were in close competition for the honor: "Music Bank" on KBS2-TV at 7 p.m. Thursdays and "Music Camp" on MBC-TV at 4 p.m. Saturdays. Kim Hyung-jin, a member of the civic group, says, "The three are much the same, but SBS's show in particular shows no signs of penitence."

Instead of an independent ranking body like Billboard or Soundscan, these TV programs are the be-all and end-all of the pop scene, far more important than all the peninsula's many music video channels combined. The three one-hour-long programs also feature performances by a few selected singers. It's no wonder that to make it big, it can be crucial to get on one of these programs. One appearance means a great boost in popularity.

"We take pride in the fact that we could step into stardom without starring in one of those stupid programs," says a manager for a half-underground, half-mainstream modern rock band.

So who picks the lucky ones to appear on the programs? The producers are usually the almighty. "There are hundreds of hopefuls who want to have five minutes on stage," says Jun Jin-su, producer of MBC's "Music Camp."

To keep ratings high, the programs tend to feature dance groups whose looks count for more than their talent.

Each week, these programs come up with rankings of their own, which are usually different. Mr. Jun says that he uses a combination of three elements to come up with the rankings: singer preference as determined by Gallup Korea polling makes up 50 percent, frequency of the songs' airplay is 20 percent and album sales 30 percent.

Masters of ceremonies are usually hotshot actors who don't have any apparent connection to music. If you want to find a seat in the audience, you should file an application at least a week in advance. Once in the audience, however, it is hard to appreciate the music, for all the mad fans shouting and screaming at the top of their lungs when their idols come out.

Since it's an opportunity to make an impression, singers and groups come onstage wearing gaudy costumes. They tend to focus more on their dancing than their singing, which often means lip-synching.

Starting with the performances of lower-ranking singers, these programs reach their climax as two competitors vying for No. 1 stand onstage and wait for the verdict. While the program is airing, phone polls seal the decision. The emcees award the No. 1 singer with a trophy and a bouquet.

These die-hard programs are the axis of evil in the local music scene, at least according to Ms. Kim of the civic group. But it seems that to eradicate this evil is not such an easy task, as long as they are among the most popular programs on television today.

"What's on Korean TV" appears Wednesdays in the JoongAng Daily.

by Chun Su-jin

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