Every few years over the past decade or so, South Korean cable channel Mnet — which is operated by CJ ENM — has produced a breakout television competition show series that has disrupted the local music industry, changing the way things work in the scene and drawing attention to different styles of music.
Two of the most prominent ones have been Superstar K, which spent eight seasons between 2009 and 2016 shedding light on musical talent across a wide range of genres; and the Produce series, which began with the first Produce 101 series in 2016 and is currently in its fourth season, known as Produce X 101.
Since its start, the series has drawn attention to hundreds of K-pop star trainee hopefuls, and produced three of the most popular K-pop groups of recent years: I.O.I, Wanna One, and IZ*ONE. Set up as temporary acts, the former two have since disbanded, though I.O.I is reportedly set to have a reunion in the near future, while IZ*ONE is still active, and will be appearing at KCON 2019 this weekend. And though there are many parts to every show, Mnet’s Kim Yong-bum has been a key person behind both of these shows, an under-the-radar power player guiding the state of South Korean music.
As the “PD,” or producer/program director, for the early seasons of Superstar K and currently serving as the executive producer of Mnet programs including the Produce series, I Can See Your Voice and High School Rapper, all shows set to shine light on hidden talents from both within and beyond the K-pop industry, Kim has been shaping the Korean music world while producing televised competitions for over a decade.
Kim sat down with Billboard recently to discuss his work in the industry, and discuss Produce X 101, which began airing in May and is set to continue on throughout July.
You’ve been working on Korean talent search shows for years, and they a major trend since 2009 with Superstar K. How have things evolved since then?
In 2009, it was all idols, like BIGBANG, Wonder Girls. Idols were on the rise and on the Melon charts, all the music charts, were kind of dictated by idols, centered around them. But then it started with the question of why aren’t there other genres? Like ballad artists or rock artists? Everything was centered toward the “Big 3” companies [SM Entertainment, JYP Entertainment, and YG Entertainment], so that’s why we started Superstar K.
One of the judges for the first season was Lee Hyori, and she said that there aren’t going to be a lot of artists because they’re all associated with the Big 3. But when we started looking for applicants, and it was like 800,000 for the season 1, double that for season 2, and even more for season 3. Almost all of the applicants were over 25, and they thought they were too old to become artists in the idol-dominated music world, but in reality there are artists over 50 or there shouldn’t be any age limits for the artists. Back in the day, many popular singers in Korea were in the 30s or 40s. There are some still around, but since it moved on to the idols, they’re really young so it kind of created a barrier for other, more other, additional genres.
So from Superstar K, Seo In-guk, Huh Gak, and Busker Busker… The show produced a lot of artists that we couldn’t previously see in the industry at the time. Similarly for Produce 101, it was kind of like… the industry was flooded with idol trainees, but few were debuting and succeeding. So it started out with the thought of, “Why can’t we create a platform for them?” That is why we launched Produce 101. And Produce 101 and Superstar K, the similarity is that they both started out of the question of “Why aren’t we seeing this in the music industry?”
How have things changed in the industry since you started doing these shows since you began doing these shows in 2009? It’s been 10 years now.
In the 2000s when Superstar K first started, the album market was collapsing and no one was actually buying albums as a lot of smartphones were coming out and everything was becoming digitized. Only idol fans were actually purchasing albums to find of support their artists. Though Superstar K created a platform for more diversified artists that were performing other genres to perform, the industry didn’t change dramatically but one of the positive things that happened was the digital charts changed, and they’re no longer dominated solely by idol music.
Based on what you just said, did the digital charts show what the general South Korean public is listening to while the album sales charts show the strength of fandoms?
Yes, it’s like that. But still there are idol groups and artists who do so good in the digital charts too. In general, nothing changed very dramatically but the consumers are more aware of the industry and think deeper about the music industry as they’re consuming the music.
What do you think about so many companies now producing groups around these trainees that have appeared on these shows? Just about every prominent Korean entertainment company has someone on its roster who has appeared on a Produce show, and now they’re all forming groups. What do you think of the series’ overall effect in the industry?
So personally, it’s not negative. These idols, they don’t have an existing fandom when they first appear on the show so the audiences are kind of cold and they really evaluate them based on their performances. They become fans and they become invested if the idols show talent and growth during the program. The formula isn’t like, if they appear on TV it equals automatic fandom. They actually have to show their growth and show their talent to get their fan base. I see it not necessarily as a survival show but more of a public relations show, and if they do their PR very well, the reward is growth of their fandom.
There are so many contestants on these shows, and they each need to have individual moments to shine and have their chance for that PR. Is that a difficulty you and your team have faced while producing the shows?
It’s true because we have a limited amount of time, even as long as our shows are. [Each episode of Produce X 101 is more than two hours long.] The [live broadcast] finale of our season two show, the first season with male talent, ended at three in the morning. But it’s necessary because we need the time. Even so, there isn’t enough time to promote each contestant equally. We attempt to balance it out with digital contents like clips and also behind the scenes videos that you can’t see on television. And also, one of my main goals is to create kind of a beautiful exit for the contestants that don’t make it in the top 11.
Have there ever been any big surprises from the series since you’ve started working on Produce?
Oh yes, yes, yes, of course. Kang Daniel (who appeared in the second season of Produce 101 and took the top spot, garnering the center position in Wanna one). We never expected him to be that successful at the beginning. We knew that he had good physical looks and had good rap skills and everything, but we never expected him to be number one at the end. But after the first and second episodes, he gained his popularity on his own. So we were very surprised to see that.
How does Produce X 101 differ from the prior three seasons?
So the main difference for the new season is we’re trying to be more global. We’ve extended the contract for season three to five years and the main purpose of this [group] is to meet a lot of global fans, like BTS. With 101, we felt kind of limited because the contract was pretty short (for I.O.I and Wanna One), but they need time so that they can visit so many different countries and also meet fans in Korea too.
Will you ever let international fans vote then, if you’re emphasizing the acts’ global appeal?
Not likely because still we emphasize the idea of it being a group produced by the Korean public, [known in the Produce franchise as] the nation’s producers.
This is the fourth season created of Produce, so what do you envision the future of these sort of shows?
We’re thinking of producing a show with Big Hit, and that’s in the works. (The companies formed the joint venture Belift Lab earlier this year.) Big Hit produced BTS and then TXT, so combining our know-how with producing Produce 101 and Big Hit’s expertise in producing a global idol, we think that we can reveal something really new. We will be targeting a debut for 2020. We’re also doing Produce 101 in Japan, so we’re expanding globally in that terms as well. Mnet has always kind of fronted the trends in Korean television first. You know, Superstar K was kind of more towards a shift in artistry, and then you have Show Me The Money, which was kind of a shift towards hip hop, and then this Produce series has resulted in, I guess, a growing interest in how idols are seen and how they’re perceived.
What do you think is the next genre that you would like to tackle or you would like to see television in Korea tackle?
I can’t really say exactly because we are always looking for the next trend and we are going to see that what is lacking in the industry at the present. I think I kind of see the moment of Superstar K coming back because there are so many idol groups and the charts are a little bit unclear, so… But still, I don’t want to confirm anything.
Don’t want to confirm Superstar K 2020?
No. (Pauses) If the time is right.