[Soompi 2011] Variety Show Review - Revolutions, Controversies and Creaky Old Backs

[Make sure you check out Soompi’s 2011 review on the “Most Shocking Scandals” and “Celebrity Love” too!]

2011 has been a pretty hectic year. We’ve had more natural disasters than a crazed sadist messing around with the disasters options in Sim City. We’ve seen the world economy go from bad to everyone running around like headless chickens etc. But all of that is dreary real life based issues, let’s break away from that for a bit and talk about variety shows– more specifically Korean variety shows and what they were like during 2011.

I think the best way to start off is to pick a catchphrase that describes variety shows in 2011, because as we all know, the only way to explain a really complicated issue to the vast majority is to simplify it down to a single catchy word that doesn’t really do a great job of describing said issue. Anyway since my “catchphrase-o-matic” isn’t running at top efficiency, I’ll sum down the 2011 Variety Show scene into a single sentence instead.

“2011, the year of revolutions, controversies and creaky old backs.”

See? Doesn’t really explain much now does it? So we’ll be spending the rest of this article going over a few noticeable key words that describe various aspects of 2011 that are specifically relevant to variety shows.

Note: To be honest, I could probably write a 60 page article that nit-pick every single tiny point about everything related to variety shows, but that would be extremely boring to read and it would take me more years than I have been here on Earth to create the pictures for them. So yes I won’t be covering everything there needs to be covered, so if you don’t see something here that should be mentioned, I probably did think about it but decided to exclude it for various reasons. And yes I’ve been heavily influenced by Zero Punctuation for the pictures. I think they differ enough though that you can’t really say it’s a direct copy; think of it more as paying homage to an art-style that I think works quite well in conveying information in single witty panels.

The evolution of the talk shows

It’s been quite a few years since we’ve had some decent evolution in the area of talk shows. For several years it’s pretty much just been MBC “Come To Play” dominating Mondays, SBS ”Strong Heart” doing reasonably well on Tuesday, MBC ”Golden Fishery” is in a race against itself on Wednesday, KBS “Happy Together” bathed by itself on Thursday and MBC “World Changing Quiz” was the talk show to beat on Saturday. They were all fairly similar in concept and execution, with the only difference being that they aired on different days and rotated through the same similar set of guests every time a new movie, album or drama was being released.

There was definitely a distinct smell of stagnation in this field and 2011 initially didn’t seem like it was going to improve in this regard. SBS started off with “Night After Night” on Monday to go up against MBC “Come to Play” but suffered from poor reviews and even poorer ratings. It didn’t help that one of its MCs, Daesung, got involved in a bit of an incident and had to excuse himself from the show, taking the show off life support for good.

SBS “Healing Camp” revives as a Phoenix from the ashes of SBS “Night After Night”

However, all was not lost in the land of talk shows, as several new programs rose up from the ashes, and most of them surprisingly survived past childhood and actually grew up to be quite smart and handsome.

KBS started off with its new Monday talk show “Hello,” MBC found itself some magical growth powder and made “Radio Star” into a full hour long show to replace “Knee Slap Dosa” on “Golden Fishery” after Kang Ho Dong’s sudden retirement, SBS took a bit of a gamble and made “Healing Camp” for Monday and KBS decided what talk shows were missing was extreme seriousness and intelligence, and made “Do Dream” on Saturday.

KBS’s “Hello” has definitely been the most successful out of the current crop of new programs. They decided that making just another generic celebrity talk show wasn’t going to have any legs and decided to try something new. For people that don’t know what “Hello” is, here is a short explanation. “Hello” is a talk show with a core set of MCs and a rotating set of celebrity panel members. However the topics of their discussions are not the celebrities.

I can’t even make stuff like this up even if i tried

The topics of their discussions involve the audience members, more specifically a constantly rotating set of audience members, your average everyday citizen with bizarre habits, problems and anything else of interest. Some of those interesting topics include a lady that cosplays every day, a girl with problematic H-Cup sized breasts and a Girl that has the voice of a guy.

The show taps into a desire to watch the weird and bizarre involving citizens, someone you might just happen to walk past on the street. It’s a relatively untested formula for talk shows in the domestic market, and some of the topics they discuss would have been taboo on domestic television as recently as 2 or so years ago. The fresh concept and having a constant stream of new audience members with unique attributes has allowed the show to stay fresh all year round. It has finally provided some much needed competition to MBC “Come to Play.” “Hello” has beaten the old veteran talk show in ratings several times throughout the year and continued to go from strength to strength over the year.  

The other new shows I’ve mentioned above have also done their part to mix up the old repertoire of talk shows on each of their respective airing dates but I’m running out of space so perhaps I’ll save them for another day.

The old veteran “Come to Play” is having a hard time keeping up with the youth

How about we quickly end this point by talking about some of the veterans of talk shows that happen to still be alive this year. As I mentioned earlier, MBC “Come to Play” has been coming under intense competition from the likes of KBS “Hello” and SBS “Healing Camp.” It’s one of the plights of being a program that has been around for nearly 8 years. The show has lost some of its charm and freshness. They’ve pretty much covered every guest that is worth covering and their concept hasn’t changed much during the last several years. It’s definitely a program that is starting to show it’s age. The same argument can also be made for MBC “World Changing Quiz” and KBS “Happy Together” to a certain extent. Except unlike “Come to Play,” these programs have yet to come up against any sort of decent competition, thus allowing their ratings to stay relatively high.  

KBS plans to introduce a new season of “Happy Together” next year that will hopefully keep the show fresh and has provided some competition for MBC “World Changing Quiz” by re-introducing “Invincible Youth Season 2” into that time slot. Of course, right now that’s like trying to hammer a nail into an iron block with a loaf of bread, with ratings for “Invincible Youth Season 2” currently being less than half of MBC “World Changing Quiz.” It remains to be seen how much competition “Invincible Youth Season 2” provides for MBC “World Changing Quiz.” As I mentioned in my “Invincible Youth Season 2” first impression article (And yes I do plan to get around to writing a follow up to that in the future) it didn’t get off to the best of starts but it does show some potential and any competition is better than nothing at this point.

Competition, Competition, auditions and oversaturation

If you’re anything like me, then the prospect of spending an hour in front of the television watching a bunch of people try to perform activities that they are not well suited in, only to be judged by experts in said field of activity, isn’t what I would personally call enjoyable television. If this applies to you in even the slightest way then 2011 would have been like going to the depths of hell, only to be raised up from the depths by a stream of rainbow unicorns taking you to a better place.

Ok, now that I’ve completely ruined that analogy, I should probably explain what I mean. A few years back, a cable broadcaster called Mnet (Some of you may have heard of them, they happen to be quite popular) decided that there was a severe lack of audition programs on Korean television. So they introduced the American Idol inspired “Superstar K” to much hype and anticipation.  That program was hugely successful for a cable program and it started a rush by other broadcasters to introduce similar programs of their own. MBC was one of the first off the line in this lucrative market with “Birth of a Great Star.” Once again, this program was also a great hit, and what was once a mild rush to get audition programs started became a buffalo stampede to try and cash in on this craze.

The Two Veteran Programs

And this brings us rather nicely into 2011, the flood gates had opened and audition/competition programs leaked out of every nook and crevice of every broadcaster. Shall we try to list them out? SBS had “Kim Yuna Kiss & Cry,” “Diet Wars Victory,” “Miraculous Auditions” and “K Pop Stars.” KBS didn’t want to be left out and decided that they will try and compete on the basis of variety, so they had “Immortal Song 2,” “Survival – Challenger” and “Top Band.” One being a fairly mediocre program loosely related to the “Survivor” series, the other one was an audition program about bands that wasn’t reviewed all that badly but failed to make any impact on ratings, and “Immortal Song 2,” KBS’s attempt to get the “I am a Singer” lighting to strike in their home as well but it ends up missing and lighting their cat on fire. Of course none of these broadcasters even compare to the amount of programs produced by MBC. They took the “Throw everything at the audience and hopefully one of them works” approach to program making in 2011. Their list of audition/competition programs includes such classics as “New Recruit,” “House Dream,” “I Am a Singer” and “Star Audition 2.” I won’t blame you for not knowing shows like “New Recruit” and “House Dream.” Both programs were fairly badly received and hardly got any attention.

Hard to avoid the stampede of audition programs last year

And then you had the Cable Broadcasters continue to add to this list with programs like “Superstar K3” and “Challenge! Super Model Season 2.” There is probably one or two programs that I have missed but put simply, there has been an absolute mountain of audition/competition based shows in 2011. However what all this proved was is a concept called “Oversaturation.” We got to the point where there was just so many audition programs that the general interest levels in such programs began to collapse faster than the world economy. Besides the veterans, “Birth of a Great Star 2” and “Superstar K3,” none of the other programs in this massive collection of programs did particularly well in ratings or viewer reviews, most programs barely got past 5% ratings for most of their program run.

Some new programs that just happens to be NOT audition programs

It took a few months but the broadcasters finally began to realize that you can actually make programs that don’t involve having to pit multiple people against each other. The result of that is that in the latter half of the year, we saw broadcasters play it safe and introduce other types of programs. KBS replaced both of their short-lived competition programs with “Invincible Youth Season 2” and “Love and War – Couple Clinic Season 2,” while continuing to work on “Immortal Song 2.” MBC also got the same memo and stopped trying to hammer in audition programs into their Sunday lineup. Instead they introduced programs like “Yim Jae Bum’s Carried by the Wind” and “Music Variety Looloolala.” SBS appears to have gotten the memo but seems to have ignored it to a certain degree. They went and produced “Kim Byung Man’s Laws of the Jungle,” but then decided that what they were missing in their lives was an even more elaborate audition program and put in “K Pop Star” into their Sunday lineup.

The program lineup has definitely become a bit more varied in the latter half of the year and the failed experiments with audition programs during the earlier parts of this year will probably mean that broadcasters will be a bit more reluctant to devise new audition programs in 2012. 

Running Man stops running and straps on a pair of rocket shoes

You know that slightly unattractive kid in school that didn’t have any friends, who was generally unknown to everyone, only for you to see them again in a few years’ time and they now happen to be a hugely successful super model? That kind of describes what “Running Man” was like during the course of 2011. It’s the typical success story that you usually only see in fairy tales or dramas but “Running Man” has been able to beat the odds and cement itself as a prime variety show on the Sunday timeslot.

Let’s be honest though. At the beginning of the year it wasn’t looking all too great for “Running Man.” It was still having a hard time finding a character for itself, it’s ratings were still single digits and to make matters worse, MBC throws out a massive curve ball and announces “I am a Singer.” At that point, most other programs would have been put on life support. However like David and Goliath, Running Man was able to go up against its much more favoured competitors and come out victorious in both ratings and general viewer interest. It once again demonstrates that a Yoo Jae Suk based program really needs to be viewed over a large time span. It was the same case for “Infinity Challenge,” which took several years to rise to the top and it has happened again for “Running Man.”

Running Man PD, he definitely understands his core audience.

So what is about the show that has allowed it to get to where it is today? It’s likely down to understanding its core audience, a clever bit of time slot strategy and some luck. “Running Man” is a program that seems to understand who their core audience is extremely well. “Running Man’s” core audience isn’t the 20~30s age group that want a bit more complexity and slower pace in their shows– Running Man’s core audience is the 10~20s age group, the group that thinks “Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3” is the greatest game ever in history. The programs combination of simple game rules, fast paced action and a constant stream of high profile guests has ensured that they pander as much as possible to their core audience. It’s also going for a niche that previously wasn’t filled in the Sunday line up; every other show on the Sunday line up is much slower paced and involves a lot more thought to be enjoyed.

Running Man watches the fight comfortably from the side line

“Running Man” has also been rather clever about its time slot. Being initially placed in the same time slot as the 600 pound gorilla we call “1 Night, 2 Days,” it was always going to have a hard time getting settled and building up a core audience set against such a formidable program. However rushing to change the time slot to the earlier slot would have been even worse as it would have then competed with the Thor’s hammer of variety shows “I am a Singer.” 

However “Running Man” got a bit of a lucky break when “I am a Singer” decided to move into the later time slot, which allowed “Running Man” to break into the much easier earlier time slot comprising of KBS “Qualifying Men” and MBC “Whatever nonsenses they are partnering up with ‘I am a Singer.’” The well timed time slot change during a key period in the program’s development allowed it to quickly build up a positive fan base for the show. It also helped that it’s two competitors were both dealing with a sharp drop in popularity and interest.

The Two guys that could do with a more interesting character

But just like a super model, it’s kind of lacking in a bit of muscle. Its simple game rules and guest focused episodes have allowed it to grow quickly but question marks still remain about how much longevity the program will have. One of the key aspects of making a program last is to have a varied set of characters for each of its core members, which constantly evolve to suit changing trends and interest. This is one area that I feel Running Man has been slacking off in.

Its focus on guests mean that a lot of each episode is spent catering to the guests rather than seeing the core members develop over time. Members like Ji Suk Jin still don’t have an endearing character while the other members haven’t seen a lot of character development over the last several months. This will be something I hope will get improved upon in 2012. The signs are good though, with the “Running Man” PD recently stating that they will cut down on the amount of overseas recording to focus more on the core program.

With “1 Night, 2 Days” expected to end early next year and “I am a Singer” going through a rough patch of massive proportions, “Running Man” could cement itself as the premier Sunday Variety Show by mid-2012, as long as they continue to make solid improvements to the core program and its member characters. 

Kang Ho Dong bids his farewell, leaves behind a family of orphaned programs

Well talk about a hydrogen bomb at the core of the entertainment industry. Kang Ho Dong has been on the news so many times during the course of the year that you could print out all the news articles about him and have enough print outs to cover a small European nation. Unfortunately, he has been on the news for all the wrong reasons this year, eventually forcing him to say a sudden and immediate goodbye to viewers, leaving behind several production staff members in a panicked frenzy.

It all started with his sudden decision to leave “1 Night, 2 Day” earlier in the year, causing an absolute panic attack for KBS. In KBS’s position, it would have been quite a shock and quite perplexing. “1 Night, 2 Day” was continuing its dominance of Sunday and had swept aside competitors with little difficulty. Kang Ho Dong’s sudden decision was easily one of the biggest entertainment related news stories in early 2011. Both sides eventually reached an agreement and decided to continue the show up until at least February 2012. KBS would have breathed a deep sigh of relief, it wasn’t the best agreement but it was at least manageable and they would have believed that their issues were all behind them. Oh how wrong they were, how very wrong they were.

This was hugely unexpected

KBS’s respite lasted for the best part of a month or two, then it was straight back into panic mode with shocking news that Kang Ho Dong was being investigated for tax evasion. The gates of hell opened up at that point and the ever ready brigade of anti-commenters sprung to action like zombies attacking their first major city of fresh meat. The issue got widespread coverage and Kang Ho Dong was placed under a lot of pressure to apologize. But the ever unpredictable Kang Ho Dong decided that a simple apology wasn’t enough and decided to completely and utterly shock everyone by holding an emergency press conference and announcing his temporary retirement.

They have managed to weather the storm without too many issues

The effect was immediate; the issue suddenly became a problem for all 3 broadcasters. They have now suddenly lost their main MC for multiple important programs with little preparation time. A lot of his programs were quickly modified to cover for his absences, with only one program, “Knee Slap Dosa,” being completely eliminated. So how has it worked out for each program? SBS “Strong Heart” is being superbly manned by Lee Seung Gi, who has proven himself capable of being a solo MC. KBS “1 Night, 2 Days” has also luckily avoided any major negative consequences and continues to be as strong as ever. MBC “Golden Fishery” was also quick to act by extending “Radio Star” to cover the whole program, which has worked out surprisingly well. Unfortunately SBS “Star King” hasn’t been so lucky, it’s ratings has dropped significantly over the course of the year, but to be honest some of that drop was already occurring even with Kang Ho Dong at the helm.

With the prosecution office recently dropping their tax evasion case against Kang Ho Dong, the biggest question now is, when will Kang Ho Dong return? No one really knows but sometime in 2012 seems likely, or at the very least that’s what most fans are hoping for.

I Am A Singer, MBC’s eureka moment. Forgets it’s still naked a year down the line.

There is no other way to say this; “I am a Singer” was a revolution for variety shows. It’s combination of veteran talented singers and a fresh-at-the-time competition format was like a breath of fresh air to viewers. It was easily one of the most hyped programs I’ve ever seen on Korean television, the expectation and anticipation for that program was practically fever pitch. If you knew nothing about variety shows, you would have thought that program was about to announce a cure for every disease on Earth.

The program started off well enough, the list of singers were solid, the performances were great, the audience voting system created a sense of tension that didn’t really exist in any other variety show and everything was lovely dovely. Its ratings also reflected this, it was the first time in years that MBC finally had a program that was competitive rating-wise with “1 Night, 2 Day” and it looked like all their worries would wash away in a sea of nice music and happy viewers. So how in the world did MBC screw this up in less than a year?!

This didn’t end well

The first signs of trouble took less than a month to materialize with the now-infamous Kim Gun Mo incident. The format of a competition based program means that someone, no matter how famous or veteran they are, will have to be eliminated from the show. That’s the whole point, that’s what gives the show tension and makes it worthwhile to watch the performances. To suddenly go and change the rule because “Oh that result doesn’t make sense, so we’ll twist the rules” is slap on the face to most viewers. It’s like watching a football match, seeing your team score a goal and then have the referee go, “Oh that shouldn’t be happening, the other team should get a free penalty kick just because.”

But let’s be honest, it was still a new program, it’s reasonably expected that things were still not set in stone and subject to change. The staff could have definitely perhaps gone about the ordeal in a clearer way but some of the blame for blowing this issue out of proportion is us. Yes, you me and everyone else that commented negatively towards the program during this period. We could have taken it a bit more coolly but it’s the internet and sometimes emotions tend to overrule logic.

Anyway all of this resulted in the Main PD being removed from the show and the show going on a one month hiatus to re-organise under a new PD and staff. It once again returned a month later with a solid set of singers and it once again looked like the show was on a path of success. Unfortunately said path was quite short, at the end of which was a massive downward decline, to where we are now. The program ratings have dropped down to single digits and it hasn’t been reviewed favourable by viewers for quite a while now. So what went wrong?

It needs a few repairs but it could be a future classic

You could blame a lot of things, some of the new singers were questionable, some of the results were baffling, the format of the show favoured singers with elaborate screaming performances while putting slower ballad singers at a distinct disadvantage and some of the program editing was quite poor. Personally the biggest issue with the program during the course of the year seems to have lost a lot of its impact and shock. As a variety show, it should provide some laughs and varied forms of entertainment. Unfortunately after Kim Gun Mo’s failed lipstick performance, the program distanced itself as far away as possible from any sort of funniness and began to take itself a bit too seriously.

Mid-point inspections, about as interesting as hammering nails to your own hands

The 3 week format also means that there is a pointless middle episode. Which is primarily there to act as a filler episode. That would be fine if it was interesting to watch but it isn’t and the overall concept of the middle episode hasn’t changed at all since it was introduced. The competition format has also become more annoying than tense. The voting system is still hard to understand at times and the competition format is definitely affecting all the singers and their ability to perform at top efficiency. Gone are the emotional ballads of Lee Sora and Baek Ji Young, and in are the more and more elaborate performances to gain as much votes as possible. This I think is the biggest problem with the show; the show’s original purpose to highlight talented singers of all genres seems to have been buried in a pursuit for survival and votes.

The 1st half of 2012 will be critical for the future of “I am a Singer.” The program needs to capitalise on the fact that “1 Night, 2 Day” is ending and re-gain a lot of their lost fan base by bringing in much needed change and improvement. Despite all the negatives, let’s not forget the fact that “I am a Singer” was still an extremely important program in 2011, it was the 2nd most searched variety show on Naver, only being beaten by “Superstar K3,” and continues to receive a lot of attention from people. It still has the potential to be a major player on Sundays and 2012 will be essential for its future survival– let us see if this misguided singer still has a few more good performances up its sleeve.

Infinity Challenge retakes the Saturday throne, everyone else battles for 2nd place.

2010 wasn’t a very good year for MBC “Infinity Challenge.” Up to that point it was the variety show yard stick that every other variety show was compared to. It was the only program that had won the Grand Award from the MBC Entertainment Awards and was constantly at the forefront of the real variety show genre. However 2010 was an extremely dark year for the show, the show’s reviews were negative due to excessively long specials and numerous episodes that didn’t quite live up to the expectations. The ratings suffered as a result and it was constantly beaten by its time slot competitor “Star King” and it’s fellow MBC program “World Changing Quiz.” Their drop in ratings compared to “World Changing Quiz” was particularly painful for Infinity Challenge fans as it resulted in “Infinity Challenge” losing the “Viewer Choice” awards at the 2010 MBC Entertainment Awards to “World Changing Quiz.”

But if there is one show that has shown the ability to quickly and rapidly evolve itself for the better. It’s Infinity Challenge. They took on all the complaints throughout 2010 and set about acting on all of them throughout 2011. They started the year with their New Year’s Special “Remove All Grudges,” where they set about reviewing all the complaints about the show through 2010 and getting opinions from a panel of TV experts. It was Infinity Challenge’s own unique way of acknowledging all their faults of 2010.

Put simply, 2011 was a good year for “Infinity Challenge.”

So the question that needs to be asked is; did it work? Put simply, 2011 was extremely successful. Gone were the extremely long and complex specials of 2010 like the WM7 Wrestling Special and 2011 Challenge! Calender Special, and in its place were much shorter specials like “You are Handsome” and the “Hare and the Tortoise.” They also went back to their roots and produced much simpler episodes that placed a high emphasis on comedy and individual member characters. Episodes such as “Myung Soo is 12 Years Old,” “Infinity Company Outing,” “Infinity Company” and “Cancelled in case of rain” special were prime examples of Infinity Challenge’s approach to 2011. They were short specials that didn’t involve any expensive scenarios or complex rules. It was just the members interacting with each other in witty and comedic ways, something that was severally missing in 2010, as they tried to scale up the complexity of the show.

Some of their finest moments

They also had the occasional complex episode like “TV Wars” and the “Speed Special,” the latter getting high praise for its clever way of interpreting the Dokdo island issue.

“West Coast Expressway Song Festival” and the “Speed Rowing” specials were the only extended specials for the year, but they didn’t suffer from the same complaints compared to the extended specials of 2010. They were much better paced and every episode felt fresh despite being part of the same special.

“Infinity Challenge’s” guest list for 2011 was also quite formidable. They had So Jo Sub, Jo In Sung, G-Dragon, Bada, 10CM, Lee Juk, Jung Jae Hyung, Sweet Sorrow, PSY, Big Bang, Gary, Defconn, Jung Jinwoon, and Kim Jang Hoon. These specials saw the rise of Jung Jae Hyung as a rising star of Variety Shows in recent months.

The Infinity Challenge members have also seen their statuses rise immensely, in particular Jung Hyung Don and Jung Jun Ha, who both seemed to have regained their confidence this year and have been extremely popular this year. The other members, Yoo Jae Suk, Park Myung Soo, Gil, Haha and Noh Hong Chul have all done extremely well this year, giving birth to numerous new characters within the show such as “God Yoo,” “Emotional Up and Downs Myung Soo,” “Feel No Pain Gil,” “Haha, the kid that is slightly dim compared to other guys of the same age” and “Positive Thinker Hong Chul.”

Infinity Challenge has risen high above it’s competitors

All of this has been reflected in the ratings and general opinion of the show. Ratings have risen and been consistently above 15% for the whole year, beating out every other variety show on Saturday by a healthy margin. The show was the third most search variety show on Naver, a recent survey by the Korean Broadcast Advertising Corporation found that “Infinity Challenge” was rated as the most engaging show of 2011 and their yearly calendar has once again been extremely successful, earning closer to USD$3.8 million, with profits of USD$688 thousand being used to help needy children and other worthwhile causes.

“Infinity Challenge’s” two other time slot competitors, SBS “Star King” and KBS “Immortal Song 2” have been unable to touch “Infinity Challenge’s” dominance in 2011. It has been extremely bad in particular for “Star King.” They have seen their rating almost halved within the last year and is now battling tooth and nail with “Immortal Song 2.”

“Infinity Challenge” has once again re-taken the crown for most popular variety show on Saturday and as long as they continue to evolve and address their issues like 2011, then we can expect the show to continue its dominance into 2012.

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