Korean TV shows turn to teens to keep their viewership young
Teenagers are taking over Korean television. The small screen is shedding light on young people born after the turn of the century and putting them at the forefront of entertainment shows — a change for channels which have lacked youthful stories as TV viewership has been growing older.
Gen Z, generally defined as those born between 1996 and 2010, are at the center of shows like KBS's "Capitalism School," in which they receive 1 million won ($790) and have to think of ways to increase their funds. Mnet's "Generation Z Self Survival" follows teenagers challenged to live without their phones for 36 hours. Cast members are trot prodigy Jeong Dong-won, born in 2007; singer Yoon Min-soo's son Yoon Hoo, born in 2006; late rock star Shin Hae-chul's daughter Shin Ha-yeon, born in 2006; and basketball player Hyun Ju-yeop's son Hyun Joon-wook, born in 2009.
Original shows on over-the-top (OTT) platforms have also been expanding their narratives to the world of teens. Tving's series "Adult Trainee" (2021) explored teenagers' sexuality and MBN's "High School Mom and Dad" sheds light on teen parenthood. Darker genres like Netflix's "Juvenile Justice" (2022) and Seezn's "Hope or Dope" (2022) started the discussion on juvenile crime. The currently-airing tvN series "Our Blues" also features a character in high school going through an unwanted pregnancy.
The MZ generation (millennials and Generation Z) has been a term commonly thrown around in Korea to collectively address the vague concept of young people born between the 1980s and 2010s. But the current TV trend has shifted to specifically target Gen Z.
"The dialogue has evolved into separating the Z from MZ," said pop culture critic Kim Heon-sik. "More shows are targeting or starring teens, who are receptive to content trends and also have a great deal of influence on them."
"Teens face an ever-changing world, but neither school nor other adults teach them how to cope," said pop culture critic Kim Sung-soo. "There haven't been many teens on TV, or programs that seriously talk about what troubles they go through. We're seeing a slight change."
While shows like "Capitalism School" and "High School Mom and Dad" add an educational aspect by having personal finance YouTubers or professional therapists on board as mentors, most Gen Z shows are primarily based on showing things as they are, no interventions. These formats help bring out each individual teen's personality, and introduce viewers to Gen Z trends through their daily lives. For instance, in "Capitalism School," Shin Ha-yeon comes up with creating messenger app emojis to increase the 1 million won she has been given. Jeong Dong-won visits a popular personal finance YouTuber, himself born in 2008, to seek advice. Hyun Joon-wook resells photo cards of popular animation characters — a resell investment trend popular among younger generations today, ranging from K-pop idols' merchandise to luxury fashion items.
The main viewership of television in general has been consistently growing older and older, as younger generations moved on to instead use YouTube, OTT services and TikTok. TV channels are attempting to broaden their viewership to include younger people, and the influx of teen shows is the result.
"Parents between their 30s and 50s who have children in their teens are our main target," said "Capitalism School" producer Choi Sehung-beom. "The target viewership of most KBS entertainment shows like '2 Days and 1 Night' is those in their 50s and above. There aren't many other shows that could appeal to relatively younger mothers and fathers, so we aimed for that audience."
"High School Mom and Dad" started airing in March and there are already talks of a second season due to its success. The channel MBN's main viewership is also people in their 50s and above, but this show targets those between the ages of 20 and 49. Although the show does face criticism for bringing the taboo topic of teen parenthood to light — in a country where premarital pregnancy is considered shameful even for adults — it is also praised for its realistic portrayal of what teen parents in Korea face.
Showing the everyday lives of Gen Z has also had the unintended effect of helping generations better understanding each other.
"When the teens were unable to order at an electronic kiosk or make reservations online without their smartphones, they then asked, 'Does that mean my grandma hasn't been able to do this?'" said "Generation Z Self Survival" producer Lee Eun-jung. "Their reactions led them to understand older generations."
However, there are concerns about featuring teens at the forefront of such shows.
"As episodes go on, the shows tend to become a basis for gossip rather than seriously listening to what worries teenagers go through," critic Kim Sung-soo said. "Shows should refrain from simply using them as a topic for entertainment without a serious dialogue."
"Teenagers on TV means they're recorded from a young age," said pop culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun. "For the shows to be balanced, it's necessary for the shows to go past simple observation and have experts give teens advice."
While it is meaningful that Korean media talks more about teenagers, critics warn against reading teens as a monolith after watching such shows.
"Generalizing the MZ generation is very patronizing," said critic Jeong. "It can actually further cut off communication between older and younger generations."
"All teens are different and don't always understand each other either," critic Kim Heon-sik added. "Defining that all teens are a certain way is a risky thought process, but trying to look into what teens are like today is a positive attempt."
BY KIM JEONG-YEON, HALEY YANG [email@example.com]