Getting a full dose of American reality TVIt all started innocently enough, when Q Channel, one of the first documentary cable networks in Korea, began in 2000 to air “Survivor,” an American reality TV show in which contestants scheme to win a $1 million prize.
But the network’s decision last year to pick up “Cheaters,” a show about private investigators who follow people who are suspected of cheating on their partners, was seen as a sign of decline by some viewers as well as by Q Channel staff members.
But now “Cheaters” and “Survivor” are two of the top-rated shows on the cable network, each running twice a week during prime time. “Survivor” set a record as the longest-running reality program in local television history; “Cheaters” earns the highest ratings among other cable shows in its time slot.
The shows were successful in spite of, or maybe because of, the outrage it drew from media critics and older viewers.
Unfortunately for them, the shows’ popularity has only paved the way for more American reality TV, and Korean audiences are more than ready for its arrival.
“The consensus among program organizers at first was that ‘Cheaters’ was way too out there for a Korean audience,” says Lee Won-hee, a spokeswoman for Q Channel. “It was too explicit. We said it’s not going to work for Koreans who watch TV. But audiences’ curiosity kept increasing, to a level much more extreme than what had already existed.”
“ ‘Cheaters’ was sensational when it first ran,” Ms. Lee says. “Now it’s become ordinary.”
Ms. Lee says viewers’ increasing appetite for American reality TV is prompting other cable networks to import shows that Q Channel has considered but has rejected, such as “Temptation Island,” on Dongah TV, or “Fear Factor,” which OCN is still debating to pick up due to the graphic nature of the show, which has participants eat insects and perform other scary tasks to win prize money.
A flood of programs
Other reality shows in Korea include “Joe Millionaire” on OCN, in which women compete for the affections of a man they think is a millionaire but who’s actually a construction worker; “Extreme Makeover” on Dongah TV, where participants undergo extensive cosmetic surgery; “Love Cruise” on Movieplus, a matchmaking show; “For Love or Money” on Catch On, which forces a couple to choose between their relationship and $1 million; and On Style’s “The Simple Life,” which follows the lives of hotel heiress Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, daughter of pop singer Lionel Richie, on an Arkansas farm.
These represent only the beginning for local cable networks, which rely on American imports to make up 60 percent of its program lineup.
“I think this trend of reality TV will last at least for the next two years in the U.S. and Korea,” says a program organizer for Catch On, a major cable movie channel that has aired some of the most-watched American shows in Korea, including “Sex and the City” and “South Park.”
The flood of programs can also be attributable to the low production costs of reality TV ― no need to pay for scriptwriters or actors ― which leads to lower distribution fees for Korean networks.
Lee Man-hee, a researcher at the Korean Broadcasting Commission, says the lower costs of importing the shows mean the programs arrive in Korea shortly after airing in the United States. In the past, episodes of popular hits such as “X-Files,” “Sex and the City” and “Ally McBeal” arrived here long after they had appeared in the United States, from two or three seasons to several years.
Different kind of appeal
American TV shows have always been popular on public and cable channels. Yet the allure of American reality TV differs from that of “Friends” or “Sex and the City,” whose appeal had largely to do with Koreans’ fascination about young professionals leading glamorous lives in big cities.
In fact, with reality shows, the attraction may be exactly the opposite. Some experts say people can take satisfaction in a certain moral superiority while watching reality shows where participants debase themselves before a national audience.
By airing these programs without a cultural context, Yun Hong-shik, a professor of media studies at Seoul Women’s University, says the shows could give “negative images” about American TV and lead to xenophobic sentiment against foreigners.
Kim Mun-gyu, a researcher for the Yonsei Institute of Media Art, says the popularity of reality TV reflects the audience’s growing desire to see something more spontaneous than scripted, even if it doesn’t seem true to life.
What’s portrayed as reality for American audiences is more like fiction for Korean audiences, as there are vast cultural differences between the shows’ intended audience (Americans) and the actual viewers (Koreans).
“It almost doesn’t matter if the scenario is fictional or not,” Mr. Kim says.
“There are many ways that producers of reality TV can stage or construct an environment that provoke accidental events to occur while filming unscripted situations. The boundary between reality and fiction is vague anyway. The important thing that matters to audience in the end is how sensational the show is going to be.”
Instant Paris Hilton fans
Even if these shows seem more like fiction to Korean audiences, their impact on viewers is definitely real, especially with younger audiences.
More than 10,000 people have joined the fan site of Paris Hilton and her sister, Nicky, at Daum, a local community portal, which has drawn more attention after “The Simple Life” began airing last week on On Style, a new channel that focuses on fashion and lifestyles.
Lee Young-bin, a producer at On Style, says “The Simple Life” is targeted exclusively to young working women in Korea whose interests include shopping and trends.
“The drama trend now focuses on something eccentric and humorous rather than serious,” Mr. Lee says. “The setting of two stylish rich girls stuck in a farming town is part of that popular trend.”
Ha Su-jeong, a 22-year-old college student who joined the fan site earlier this month, said she is just interested in Paris Hilton’s fashion and nothing else.
“I don’t care about the rest,” she says. “I am just interested in her style ― the clothes and where she shops. My friends and I occasionally search their photos on the Net and exchange them.”
Some expressed more mixed emotions. A woman who identified herself as “K eun S,” wrote, “I felt the culture shock from the very first episode (of “The Simple Life”), when Paris Hilton grabbed a $1,100 Christian Dior bag to carry her dog.
“I realize they are from another planet. But I wish I had a house in Beverly Hills.”
by Park Soo-mee