The Problem With "Hello Counselor"

"From trivial stories to unspeakable concerns of Koreans living in this age, regardless of whether they’re male or female, old or young! Sometimes with laughter! Sometimes with deep emotion! A program trying to break down the wall between people that arises from a lack of communication by sharing each other’s stories." 

This was the official description for "Hello Counselor," a Korean talk show that recently ended its ten-year run. Although many Korean fans expressed their regret at the end of such a popular TV program, the international audience seemed relieved and happy that it was finally, officially over. As someone who occasionally watched clips on YouTube in my free time, I couldn’t help but have mixed feelings about the show, its end, and people's reactions. Was the program as harmful as people accused it of being, or were things blown out of proportion? 

For the sake of context, here’s a quick rundown on how "Hello Counselor" worked:

  1. Viewers submit a problem they have. Some recurring themes touched upon issues like overbearing partners, unhealthy lifestyles, and mental health
  2. "Hello Counselor" production crew select three submissions to be read + discussed. 
  3. Program hosts (a fixed team of popular Korean comedians) read each submission and ask the submitter, who sits with the hosts onstage, to clarify, add details, etc. Since most submissions involve a third party who is the cause of the submitter’s problem(s), the person in question is also invited to attend the taping. 
  4. Hosts and celebrity guests offer their advice.
  5. Audience members cast their votes — "yes" if they think the submitter has a legitimate concern, and "no" if not. 
  6. The submitter with the most "yes" votes is granted prize money.

When I first started watching "Hello Counselor," I thought it was a great way for Koreans to publicly address "taboo" topics that are usually ignored because of the relatively conservative views prominent in South Korea. Depression, for example, is an issue that is often swept under the rug despite how common it is; in 2017, government data revealed that only 10% of Koreans suffering from mental health disorders sought professional help. My impression was that "Hello Counselor" could act as a platform for people to speak out about and raise awareness for sensitive subjects. I genuinely think that "Hello Counselor" was conceived and put together with the (good) intentions of providing Koreans with a way to seek help, no matter what their concerns were about — and for the most part, it looks like both the production crew and hosts did their best to make sure the program acted as a support system.

At the same time, some of the problems that some of the (non-Korean) audience had were that:

  • Hosts tended to talk about the submissions in a lighthearted way (e.g. making jokes), even if the problem was about something serious.
  • The show didn't make it clear whether or not they provided submitters with professional help before or after the taping. 

I understand — and agree with — these complaints because the execution of this goodwill seems to have thwarted the effectiveness (or at least, the perceivable effectiveness) of the whole program. Although it is true that the hosts were comedians, and that they made efforts to tread lightly whenever submitters got emotional, their general attitudes often came across as inappropriate and lacking sensitivity. Furthermore, the hosts rarely made visible shows of emotions (crying, anger, etc.) and made sure to apologize whenever they accidentally did so. It's not that I would've preferred for the hosts to break down or yell whenever they got upset, but I personally felt that their attempts to keep things cheery seriously undercut the gravity of many submissions. Some episodes had submitters talking about cases of extreme spousal abuse, and even then "Hello Counselor" tried to maintain a positive atmosphere by steering conversations into easier directions. While I don't want to blame or accuse the hosts of purposely ignoring the weight behind tricky submissions — if anything, I thought they did a pretty decent job of offering sincere advice and calling out offensive/harmful behavior whenever necessary — I think that "Hello Counselor" would've been so much more helpful if they had treated each submission with the right amount of seriousness (i.e. avoiding the use of comedy in delicate situations). 

Another point that made "Hello Counselor" controversial was its apparent lack of professional help services. I say "apparent" because while I couldn't find any evidence of them consistently providing submitters with psychiatrists, medical support, etc., there have, in fact, been a few instances where the program invited licensed professionals to comment on certain topics. Overall, however, these guest appearances weren't frequent enough to contribute a great deal to the program's mission of resolving concerns. Problems like alcoholism can't be fixed with a simple promise; if things were that easy, why are so many people still suffering from their damaging habits? Someone who abuses their partner isn't going to stop just because a celebrity tells them to. Moreover, what's to say they won't retaliate back at home after being shamed and called out on national television? If the regular enlistment of a professional team was difficult to organize — and I imagine it was, considering how long TV show tapings can take — interviews or phone calls with a relevant individual (e.g. a psychiatrist for someone showing symptoms of depression) could've been an enormously valuable asset to both the submitter and viewers. 

"Hello Counselor" was a hit-or-miss production. Sometimes, the hosts were excellent with their counseling and made noticeable changes in people's lives. Other times...not so much. It had the potential to be something bigger and better, but it (unfortunately) failed to improve its angle and structure despite public feedback. Though I enjoyed watching it, "Hello Counselor" was admittedly something that needed to have been better planned out. I hope that when (and if) the next "Hello Counselor" is set for broadcast, it'll be done so after thorough preparation.