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The Dilemma of K-Pop Survival Shows: The “Produce” Series

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Washington chapter.


The Theme Song that started it all

101 contestants, 11 winners, 1 K-pop group — their fate lies in your hands.

In 2016, the airing of a K-pop idol survival show named “Produce 101” spread a wave of frenzy among K-pop fans. Unlike the traditional process of creating a K-pop group, the survival show broadcasted the training, evaluation, and interactions between the trainees, inviting the audiences of the shows to cast votes and determine the final debut line-up. This seemingly “democratic” approach was not new but never occurred on such a broad, international scale across trainees of different companies and backgrounds. The hugely successful airing of season one opened a legacy of “Produce” groups, with the final winners of each season rising to immediate success with their popularities being on par with the top groups at the time. Yet three years later, with season four of the show ending, suspicions regarding the final voting numbers quickly escalated into a vote manipulation investigation. With the arrests of the director and producers, the yearly “Produce” festivals came to an end.

A Truman Show

Like Truman, 99% of a trainee’s daily life is recorded: yes, they are constantly under surveillance. Yet, the show is simultaneously the opposite of the authenticity that Truman stands for.

The “Produce” series is infamously known for its “evil editing” – that is, the purposeful manipulation of recordings and phrases said by participants. This increases the drama value of the show as audiences debate and judge the behaviors of the trainees. Many contestants who received the short end of the stick faced heavy cyberbullying for years to come. Previous contestants of the show would later come out and support this, explaining how it was obvious when certain trainees had more cameras following them 24/7. There was a clear bias: certain trainees received elaborate storylines and “development arcs,” whilst many others had no more than minutes of screen time throughout the entire season.

Below is an interview featuring Alexa (left), an American Korean contestant of the third “Produce” series, talking about her experiences

To rig or not to rig

When the differences between the final votes of the season four finale all shared a common denominator – something that could not just be seen as a mere coincidence. As investigations began, it was revealed that voting manipulation began as early as season two, and a whole line of similar survival shows were also exposed for rigging. At the time of the scandal, IZ*ONE (the winning girl group from season 3) was forced into a long hiatus, and X1 (the winning boy group of season 4) soon disbanded after only releasing one song.

The director behind the “Produce” series argued that they began to pre-determine the winners due to the pressure they felt from the success of the first two groups. Although vote manipulation is inexcusable, this led to a debate about whether rigging the final winners allowed for a more cohesive and balanced team.

This video has a well-explained format for the show and elaborates on the scandal beginning at 6:25:

Moving onwards… (the directors of the show certainly have…)

As the biggest idol survival show series, “Produce” provided a platform for contestants with fewer opportunities to shine compared to their counterparts from larger companies. However, a dream come true of the few winners came at the expense of the demise of many.

Following the “Produce” series, there have been similar shows like “Girls Planet 999” and “My Teenage Girl.” However, with the level of trust in voting shows significantly lowered, no survival shows in the foreseeable future will make an imprint on the K-pop industry like the “Produce” series has.

Kelly Luo

Washington '26

Hi! I'm Kelly, an international first-year student at the UW from Shanghai, China! I love looking at social issues through pop culture, and in my free time, you can usually catch me eating Asian food or reading trashy web novels.