BH Discuss: Are Korean reality talent shows unethical?

Brad Moore, the American drummer of Korean band Busker Busker, stirred up a lot of controversy and discussion this week when a tell-all interview about his time as a contestant of MNET’s music talent show Superstar K was released by VICE.

bradThe portrayal of the show in the interview was, frankly, bleak. Moore spoke of pressure to undertake botox injections and to go on a diet and being constantly monitored and completely shut off from the world around him, including friends and family.

On top of the personal difficulties, he also highlighted potentially serious ethical problems with the production of the show itself. These included contestants not being paid for the promotional work they took part in and for music sales, rigged results, pressure to lipsync, bad working conditions and dodgy contract dealings.

Emboldened by Moore’s confessions, Joe McPherson of Zenkimchi spoke out about his bad experience of Korean reality TV on Masterchef Korea which was shown on the the O’live channel which is also owned by CJ E&M along with MNET.

masterchefHis main criticisms of the programme were: judges that were unqualified for the job, amateurs and professionals competing alongside each other and a preference for image over quality or fairness.

Most of these issues seem to stem from the fact that the show itself appeared to exist mostly as a vehicle for the promotion of CJ’s massive line of food products.

YG Entertainment’s new reality show WIN, which pits two groups of trainees up against each other fighting for the prize of debuting, also sparked a lot of discussion recently after Yang Hyun Suk confirmed his plans to disband the losing group in the competition. There were complaints about the cruelty of training young people for so long, putting them in the spotlight and then taking away their opportunity to succeed.

So with all this in mind the question is: Are Korean reality TV programmes unethical?

Korean shows are not the only ones who have faced previous criticism for bad practices. The British version of the X Factor has seen various scandals over the years from autotuning in auditions to inviting bad contestants to audition again for the purpose of entertainment.

But does the Korean entertainment industry have particularly unethical practices? This is not the first time former contestants have complained about pressure to undertake cosmetic procedures or that votes have been rigged or changed. What is it about the industry that enables this kind of behaviour? Does it need to change?

Here are some interesting related links from Beyond Hallyu and around the internet:


Why do they do that? Korean culture and the K-pop industry

Breaking K-pop’s Fourth Wall: What idols can tell us about ourselves

The Troubles of Not Starring in a Korean Drama


Busker Busker shows that music is not sport. In other news, water is wet.

Made It In Ohio: How Bradley Ray Moore accidentally conquered K-pop

My Experience With Masterchef Korea

Yang Hyun Suk guarantees that he will disband the losing team on ‘WIN’

15-year-old S’porean K-pop hopeful: They tried to ‘fix’ my face

K-pop contest tell Shimali De Silva, 14, she looks too old and needs plastic surgery

Discuss in the comments! Let us know what you think.

  • Orion

    There is a show which is turning toddlers into clowns, disgustingly adult-looking clowns and it’s making money in the US. If people have no issues with child abuse, do you think they’d mind bullying teenage girls? Those kinds of industries are the ones which cause most of the people in this world to have body image problems. I think reality shows in general have been unethical for quite some time now.

    Also, interesting piece out today.

    • Lizzie

      This is true. There is also a particularly charming American one where women compete for a ‘full body makeover’ and a dream wedding. Agreed, I wonder how child labour laws come into play when you’re talking about reality shows. I know Busker Busker said they were on an ‘amateur’ so it would be worrying if that gave young contestants no protection at all.

      That is interesting, I’ve added it to the list of links. I like that they address it as a global problem rather than just pointing the finger at plastic Korea as many outlets tend to do.

  • GeraYvonAnde

    They pretty much have none, they just like to find cheap and nasty ways of making money at the cost of people’s dignity, however we could also question the motives of those who partake in these things, afterall they agree to it they sign contracts, do they really know what they’re signing themselves up for or is it pressure to get involved in these things D:

  • kpopalypse

    Props for the linkage to my article (“…water is wet”), didn’t expect to see that! The aim of my article was partly to demonstrate that corruption in music competitions is not just Korean but global, and it’s the existence of the competitions themselves which is the real issue. I do not recommend that musicians enter any competiton, in any country anywhere, ever.

    My response to this article’s other question is that if people are saying one thing but their wallet is saying another, the industry will naturally listen to what talks the loudest.

    • Lizzie

      No problem, you made some really good points. It was one of the things that made me choose this topic. I really dislike music competitions for the reasons you highlighted. Also because they’re so blatantly trying to manipulate the viewer’s emotions (I mean I know that’s something all TV shows do to some extent but it just always feels particularly exploitative in that format).

      Totally agree. I’ve been seeing people discussing WIN and how cruel YG is etc. but they don’t seem to realise that their reactions are actually part of their consumption of the show and the hypocrisy of that behaviour. K-pop has always been exploitative but they only care when it’s served up as entertainment.

      No doubt many of these fans will then buy any products brought out as a result of the show. (And probably double the amount if it’s to do with the ‘losers’ proving the profitability of the whole exercise)

      • kpopalypse

        In many ways music competitions are like a pyramid scheme, with the losers propping up the winners. I could have gone into this in my blog but it would have spun the length out horrendously – I barely scratched the surface really.

  • Jaelyn

    I specifically avoided watching WIN or keeping up with any of that because I thought of how much it would suck to work with people so long and to be so close to reaching what you’ve been working for, just to suddenly be dropped because this many more people voted for the other group.