When it comes to audition programs, the future is female
The second half of 2021 is seeing a revival of girl group audition programs. Although domestic television ratings and public attention have been rather disappointing, experts say the genre still remains full of potential thanks to the global market and various online platforms.
Cable channel Mnet was the pioneer of K-pop girl group audition programs. It aired “Sixteen” in 2015 to form girl group Twice, which has since become one of the top K-pop acts.
Then in 2016, Mnet launched its hit audition show franchise “Produce” which is considered to have established the standard format of idol audition programs as we know them today, such as implementing a “ranking system” throughout the show and selecting finalists based on fan votes.
The franchise’s first and third seasons “Produce 101” (2016) and “Produce 48” (2018) featured all-female contestants and formed girl groups I.O.I and IZ*ONE. Thanks to the shows’ popularity, the groups were able to start off with an already-invested fan base and quickly rise to stardom.
Mnet also aired “Idol School” in 2017, which formed girl group fromis_9.
Girl group audition programs went through a temporary slump after it was exposed that vote results for the “Produce” series were manipulated, sending two of the show's producers to prison. Nonetheless, girl group audition shows made a comeback during the second half of this year and this trend is expected to carry on into next year.
Once again, Mnet was the one to signal the genre’s revival, launching “Girls Planet 999” in August. The show featured 99 contestants, 33 each from Korea, Japan and China, and ended in October with the creation of multinational girl group Kep1er.
Shortly after “Girls Planet 999” ended, MBC promptly launched “Hesitation before Going to School” and decided to try something new amid the wave of audition shows: have the renowned psychiatrist Oh Eun-young on the show as a counselor for the young contestants.
“Hesitation before Going to School” is a prequel to MBC’s upcoming girl group audition program “My Teenage Girl” set to air its first episode on Nov. 28.
In one scene, Oh gathers with the hopefuls and tells them, “There’s one thing I make [children like you] do. Tell yourself, ‘I’m awesome!’” The girls follow Oh’s instructions and start telling themselves encouraging words. The sessions aim to boost contestants’ self-esteem, especially after they have been scolded and become discouraged during the audition process.
Incorporating professional mental health help is a first in the history of K-pop audition programs. An audition program having its own prequel air before the official launch is also a new concept.
In the first half of 2022, Mnet is set to launch another girl group audition show titled “I-Land 2,” a female-version sequel to “I-Land” (2020) which formed popular boy band Enhypen.
However, “I-Land 2” faces an uncertain future in terms of publicity, considering that ratings for “Girls Planet 999” peaked at only 0.87 percent despite initially high expectations. The “Produce” series saw ratings between 3 to 5 percent and was the talk of the town while it aired, so results for “Girls Planet 999” were rather disappointing.
So why are broadcasters so determined to have new girl group audition shows lined up? Experts say the decision largely stems from four factors.
The oversaturated boy band market
There is “no pie left to be divided” by new boy bands according to experts, as the male K-pop idol market is already oversaturated.
“Powerhouses like SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment and HYBE currently have a firm grip of the boy band market with highly popular acts such as BTS, NCT, Exo, Seventeen, NU’EST, Stray Kids and Tomorrow X Together, with the addition of Enhypen which debuted last year through ‘I-Land,’” said K-pop columnist Joy Park. “Even if there is a new audition [for male hopefuls], there is no room for a new boy band to enter this oversaturated market, nor for a new fandom to form.
“On the other hand, in terms of female K-pop idols, Blackpink retains almost unrivaled popularity but many other girl groups that once had strong fandoms are declining. Rookie girl groups like aespa have grown popular recently, but there’s still a lot more pie left in the girl group market, which is why it’s a better environment for audition shows compared to the boy band market.”
Expansion of foreign fandoms
Fandoms of K-pop boy bands are known to be more loyal than those of girl groups. Experts agreed that on average, boy bands usually sell at least twice as many CDs and merchandise than girl groups.
This tendency has been attributed to the fact that female celebrities’ popularity is affected more by aging, especially since K-pop girl groups often relied on presenting a pure, innocent public image to attract mostly male fans. But now that the strategy has fallen out of trend and has been replaced by a confident “girl crush” style, the market is slowly but surely changing.
“Girl groups were for the domestic market in the past, but Blackpink expanded the global fan base and Twice proved that girl groups can sell a million CDs a year too,” said head researcher Kim Jin-woo of Korea’s album sales tracker Gaon Chart.
“These [achievements] seem to have led the industry to conclude that girl groups have commercial potential and motivated them to create the next big girl group.”
Ratings are low, but platforms are aplenty
Even if domestic ratings are low, the channels behind the programs may not be playing a completely losing game. “Girls Planet 999” saw ratings below 1 percent, but video clips from the show surpassed over 400 million views on YouTube and other platforms. More than 2.6 billion videos related to the show have been posted on short-video sharing platform TikTok. Throughout its 12 episodes, “Girls Planet 999” garnered a total of around 100 million fan votes from 175 nations.
Enhypen also went through a similar experience. “I-Land” had an average rating of 0.6 percent, but the boy band has been building a successful career ever since; its full-length album "Dimension: Dilemma" released last month sold almost 820,000 copies in the first week.
“Regardless of what domestic ratings were, various platforms and apps nowadays enable content to spread throughout the world and attract international fans,” a broadcasting insider told the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily.
“This [global influence] and the fact that the broadcaster of an audition program can take a certain amount of profit when the group officially debuts are crucial incentives for TV channels to keep hosting audition shows.”
The growing Japanese market
Another factor that boosted the revival of girl group audition shows is the Japanese market.
“Twice’s success showed that just by securing the Japanese market, a group can certainly achieve great success,” said head researcher Kim. “On the global scale, Twice’s fandom may be smaller than Blackpink, but winning over the Japanese market was enough.”
Audition programs influenced by K-pop are also proving popular in Japan. Last year, JYP Entertainment joined forces with Japan’s Sony Music and debuted girl group NiziU via the audition program “Nizi Project.” Although technically not a K-pop act since all of its members are Japanese, the girl group has adopted K-pop-style training, music and performances and quickly rose to stardom on the Japanese pop scene.
FNC Entertainment — the Korean agency behind artists F.T. Island, CNBlue, AOA, N.Flying, SF9, Cherry Bullet and P1Harmony — is currently hosting the girl group audition show “Who is Princess?” in collaboration with Japanese TV channel NTV. Five out of the 15 contestants will debut as a new girl group in Japan. The show is seeing the highest ratings among TV shows airing in Japan during the same time.
The proportion of the Japanese market when it comes to sales is also steadily increasing. According to the National Tax Service, Japan accounted for 48.6 percent of K-pop CD exports between January and November of 2020.
“China’s proportion is steadily decreasing, while that of Japan is on the rise,” said a music industry insider. “A K-pop-style girl group that can achieve popularity in Japan is a great business interest shared by entertainment firms in both Korea and Japan.”
BY YOU SEONG-UN, HALEY YANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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