Is 'Girls Planet 999' just 'Produce' in a flimsy disguise?
Cable channel Mnet has grand plans to form the next big multinational K-pop group with upcoming audition program “Girls Planet 999,” but questions remain over whether it will actually be the novel show it claims to be.
“Girls Planet 999,” set to start in August, will feature 99 contestants from Korea, Japan and China — exactly 33 women from each country.
Expectations are high, as the show comes two years after Mnet’s hit audition program franchise “Produce” (2016-2019). Although the franchise collapsed due to a vote manipulation scandal that sent two of its producers to prison, its legacy lives on in four hugely successful groups: I.O.I, Wanna One, IZ*ONE and X1.
Based on the information disclosed so far, “Girls Planet 999” doesn't seem that different from the “Produce” franchise. Contestants must pass through several themed rounds, with a certain number of hopefuls eliminated after each round. The outcome of each round is determined by fan votes. So far, so “Produce.”
Tiffany Young of Girls’ Generation and Sunmi of Wonder Girls, both now successful solo acts, will appear on the show as mentors. The “Produce” series also featured veteran K-pop stars as mentors, yet another indicator that "Girls Planet 999" is essentially “Produce” under a different name.
So is there actually any difference between “Girls Planet 999” and “Produce”? Mnet claims there are three big changes.
The third season of the "Produce" franchise, dubbed “Produce 48,” raised eyebrows in 2018 by involving Japanese contestants along with Koreans. This time, Mnet has added Chinese contestants to the mix.
While featuring Chinese contestants is expected to broaden the market, it is as much a risk factor as it is the key to potential success. The political climate between Korea, China and Japan has always been sensitive, but anti-Chinese sentiment has surged in Korea recently.
The Chinese government’s restrictions on Korean cultural content, oppression of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and alleged persecution of Muslim ethnic minorities in China’s Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region, as well as online feuds between Korean and Chinese netizens over where Korean culture originated from, has riled up emotions on both sides to the point that the SBS series “Joseon Exorcist” (2021) was canceled after two episodes due to a backlash for misleadingly portraying 15th-century Koreans eating Chinese food.
Anti-Chinese sentiment runs high across all generations, but is especially prominent among younger Koreans today, which happens to be the show's target audience.
According to a survey conducted by Hankook Research last month, Koreans in their 20s and 30s harbor more negative feelings toward China than Japan.
Some netizens already claim to have found out that some of the Chinese contestants set to star in the show have described China siding with North Korea in the Korean war as a righteous act against U.S. imperialism on social media, increasing criticism of the show before it even begins.
The political climate between China and Taiwan is also a potential powder keg.
“Considering the state of affairs, it’s highly likely that the show will not be successful in Korea,” said pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun.
“It will most likely be lambasted among Korean audiences. When ‘Produce 48’ aired, Korean viewers were quite hostile to the show because it included Japanese contestants, and the show was relatively unsuccessful in terms of ratings compared to other seasons of ‘Produce.’”
But Jeong says the business aspect of TV shows should be considered separately from ratings or reactions from Koreans.
“From the business side, ‘Produce 48’ formed girl group IZ*ONE, which became very successful and profitable even though Korea’s relationship with Japan stayed hostile. Nowadays, the majority of the profit depends on how large of a fan base the show can form, not the ratings of the show itself. The fan base creates a longer-lasting source of profit. Now that K-pop has transcended Korea and has to keep Japanese, Chinese and even U.S. markets in mind, Chinese contestants appearing on the show will broaden the market."
Problematic pleading pushed out
The female seasons of “Produce” were often criticized for objectifying girls. Dozens of young women and girls sang “Pick me, pick me, pick me” as the theme song of the first season, while the following year’s second season featured male contestants proclaiming “I’m the main character tonight” as its theme song.
The contrast between the two theme songs led to criticism that the show depicted female contestants as passively awaiting to be selected by the public, but the male contestants as proactive.
Mnet claims that “Girls Planet 999” will try to break away from this image.
“We will focus the spotlight on [the contestants'] challenges and growth. We won’t put up pleading songs like past shows,” said Mnet.
“Songs that overtly plead to the audience to ‘pick me’ were definitely problematic, because people aren’t objects to be picked,” said pop culture critic Kim Heon-sik, “especially when over a hundred girls are singing them at once.”
“But then again, the bottom line of girl groups is to appeal to the audience, so we’ll have to see if this change accurately reflects the change among the public’s preferences.”
Viewers abroad can vote too
The “Produce” series only accepted fan votes from within Korea, which led to only three members of the twelve-member group IZ*ONE being Japanese due to an imbalance in numbers.
This time, the show will accept votes from viewers around the globe.
In that case, however, a new problem is the population imbalance among the competing countries. China currently has a population of 1.444 billion while Japan has 126 million and Korea 51 million. This gap may cause a serious imbalance in favor of Chinese contestants.
While Mnet has not disclosed details, it says it has systems to prevent fans of a certain nation from taking all the votes.
BY YOU SEONG-UN,HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]