‘Produce’ series failed to deliver on its promises: Experts argue that case should be treated as employment fraud
From the trust of the public to the dreams of individual trainees, the Korea JoongAng Daily looks at what CJ ENM’s Mnet has lost through the “Produce” scandal in a two-part series.
Imagine yourself in the shoes of a job seeker, but the fate of your employment is decided entirely by public vote. Then imagine having your parents going around the neighborhood with a placard that reads, “Please vote for my son so that he’s judged fairly,” and giving out promotional cards with your face and name printed on it. Despite all the effort, you failed to secure the job, but it’s okay because you know that you tried your best.
Then imagine finding out months later that all the efforts you made never really mattered in the first place - the winners were already decided from the beginning. The company tricked you into thinking that you had a chance, but there was really nothing you could do.
This is exactly what had happened to Kang Hyeon-su, a K-pop trainee who appeared on the most recent season of the scandal-ridden Mnet audition series “Produce X 101.”
Earlier this year, Kang was seen on the program, shedding tears after finding out that his father had been going out to the streets to promote his son as best as he could. Eventually, Kang wasn’t picked to become a member of the final project band, X1. But Kang evidently had won viewers’ hearts, and fans in the audience were seen crying because of the result.
The “Produce 101” series began in 2016 with the promise to give trainees from small and new entertainment agencies a fair shot at success. Three years later, when it turned out that the producers of the program had been rigging vote results, it aggravated a sense of betrayal felt by not only the show’s devoted fans but also the trainees and agencies who had sincerely participated in the competition. While the show did create a chance for young hopefuls to make an appearance on a major TV channel, the fact that it was caught lying was a blow that may be hard for CJ ENM to recover from anytime soon.
“Once, a contestant got in trouble for revealing the competition song before others knew what it was. We asked him where he got it from and he said that his choreographer told him.”
That testimony came from one of the participants of “Produce X 101,” who spoke to MBC in October. According to the contestants, they knew that trainees from certain agencies would definitely get a place in the final group. A few trainees started the competition fully aware of the fourth season’s theme song “X1_MA,” which they were supposed to have learned together in the beginning of the program’s training camp. The contestants were also supposed to decide who would be placed at the center of the stage based on how well the trainees learned the song and choreography.
“But they suddenly changed the method, and told us that it was going to be decided by a public vote,” the trainee said.
The first video of the contestants performing thus has a different person at center stage than who the trainees had voted for. On “Produce,” taking the first center position is significant to the contestants as it tends to leave a big impact on the viewers’ memories and has been directly linked to being picked in the show’s finale - as was the case with Choi Yoo-jung of I.O.I, Lee Dae-hwi of Wanna One, Sakura Miyawaki of IZ*ONE and Son Dong-pyo of X1. Trainees mentioned Starship Entertainment as taking a lot of the show’s air time and having inside knowledge about the show, along with a few other major agencies who enjoyed a fair amount of TV exposure compared to others.
“It wasn’t as direct as saying, ‘Let’s get this guy on the team and this guy out, but the producers would surreptitiously say things like, ‘How about this guy?’ ‘Why don’t we show this guy on camera more and show less of this guy?’” said a member of the show’s production team.
But the show’s most recent season wasn’t the only one that was rigged.
Earlier this month, prosecutors revealed that all of the members of the final project bands for “Produce 48” and “Produce X 101” - the third and fourth seasons of the franchise - had been decided prior to the finale. What that meant was that producers of the show had chosen the members of both IZ*ONE and X1, not the viewers. According to the investigation, only certain members of the groups from the show’s first and second seasons were chosen by producers.
Niwa Shiori, a Japanese contestant from the show’s first season, tweeted on Nov. 8 that certain trainees had arrived to the competition after having already mastered the show’s theme song “Pick Me” before the others even knew what the song was.
“The fate of the competition was already decided from the beginning,” wrote Niwa. “I hope you know that most of the trainees are like me in my situation. We cannot say that it’s the trainees’ faults.”
Give viewers a voice
While those less familiar with the K-pop industry say that fans are making a fuss over an entertainment program, people who are well-acquainted with the system liken the scandal to being cheated out of a job, because each trainee gives their all to get the chance to debut as a K-pop star - their one and only goal.
Ha Tae-keung, a member of the Bareunmirae Party who has been speaking about the scandal since the summer, put forward a bill to amend the current Broadcasting Act in September, demanding that a viewers committee exist for Mnet as well. The current law only requires the three terrestrial channels KBS, SBS and MBC to have a viewers committee, but it’s not held mandatory to cable channels. The committees serve as a place where viewers can express grievances or request corrections from programming aired on the channels.
Yet, according to Ha, the matter should be dealt with just as any other corruption scandal regarding employment and company recruitment would be.
“Rigging the voting results of an adolescents’ audition program is just the same as an employment corruption case,” Ha said. “It’s important that we change the regulations. But what’s really important is that CJ ENM voluntarily brings in a viewers committee to recover its trust as a television station and earn its trust back.”
“It’s a shame that the trainees weren’t given a fair chance of competing like they were promised,” said an associate from one of the agencies. “But it’s also true that ‘Produce’ was a chance like never before for the trainees and agencies. We’ve seen audition programs, but none of them had attracted as much attention as the ‘Produce’ series did. And even if they didn’t make it to the final round, the trainees were able to promote themselves with the fact they participated in the ‘Produce’ series, and it works.”
Kim Tae-hoon, a member of the board at the Korea Entertainment Producer’s Association and also the director of Wings Entertainment, agreed that audition format itself isn’t at fault - just the way the groups are handled once the show goes off air. For the past four project bands, CJ ENM took 25 percent of the profit made by the band, the band’s agency took 25 percent and the remaining 50 percent went to each trainee’s original agencies. Within that 50 percent, the trainees divided the sum between the agency and themselves.
“Audition programs actually have more positive sides than negative sides,” Kim said. “It’s a chance for [music] producers to find talent who are not easily visible. It’s good that we get to find them, but the problem is that it gets sidetracked from its original goal and becomes another means for companies to make money - almost like a private property of the TV stations.”
He added, “It’s natural that producers of the program would want to make the show interesting and attention-grabbing for the audience. But the moment that business and money kicks in, that’s when things like [vote] manipulation kicks in. In that point, surveillance is crucial to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
Too much power
Before the second season of “Produce 101” aired, producer Kim vowed that “coexistence with the smaller entertainment agencies is a keyword” for the program. To that, the Music Producers’ Union - an alliance of the Korea Management Federation, the Korea Music Content Association and the Korea Entertainment Producer’s Association - issued a statement “opposing the TV media’s launch into the management industry through the [K-pop] idol audition program.”
“Entertainment conglomerates already have a system in which they produce, distribute and sell music, as well as organize performances. Allowing them to venture into management [of groups] will significantly change the music ecosystem […] Contrary to their argument that they would give chances for smaller agencies, it is centered around the TV stations’ profit-making, which will result in the disruption of the whole industry.”
Lee Myung-gil, a member of the board of the Korea Management Federation, explained that people take it for granted that TV programs will be fair and honest, just as they trust the news or documentary programs.
“The concerns that TV broadcasting stations own much of the power in the music industry has always been a source of concern for us. It’s just come to surface this time. This is the time that TV channels look back at their most fundamental duties, and we look back at how the industry is shaped. The most urgent task is that the TV channels go back to their original roles so that we can cohabitate,” Lee said.
Mnet had previously announced the launch of another audition series, “Teenage Singer,” earlier this year to follow “Produce X 101.” The channel will not be airing the show, and “will be staying off audition programs” for a while, according to a spokesperson for the channel.
“We have a grave sense of responsibility for what happened. We do not take it lightly, and promise to take all possible measures for us to regain the trust back from the audience. But we hope that people do not lose trust in K-pop or the Korean music industry as a whole,” Mnet said.
BY YOON SO-YEON [firstname.lastname@example.org]