Compared to the originality of Tencent’s “Produce 101,” a knock-off show, “Idol Producer,” received massive amounts of backlash despite its initial buzz.
Recently, Korea’s Mnet released an official statement that brought attention to the company behind the copycat show, iQiyi. In the statement, the Korean entertainment network claimed that “iQiyi’s variety show ‘Idol Producer’ has caused confusion among the general public due to its strong similarity with our show ‘Produce 101’ in terms of its concept, structure, format and visual design…Mnet has never had any involvement in the production of iQiyi’s ‘Idol Producer,’ nor have the two companies collaborated on the show.”
Over 100 million.
That’s the data that iQiyi reported just 1 hour after airing “Idol Producer.”
It’s no accident that the show became a hit; the show it is trying to copy, “Produce 101,” (“Produce” for short) has received great reviews and has garnered a large audience base. In fact, the broadcasting rights to the original Korean show have been exclusively licensed to Tencent, and it is slated for an April premiere. Therefore, when people realized that “Idol Producer” (“Idol” for short) was a blatant copy, they put the show under harsh scrutiny and criticism. However, the Chinese show was also “smart,” to an extent, in that it used the original show’s fame to gain a large initial following.
Firstly, “Idol” was actually created before “Produce” officially entered the Chinese market. In fact, the Chinese knock-off was created when the Korean show was just gaining momentum in China. As a result, “Idol” was able to tap into a large, pre-existing audience in a very short amount of time.
Secondly, as a copy of a Korean show, “Idol” invited Zhang Yixing–otherwise known as Lay from the group EXO–to be one of the instructors/judges on the show, another “smart” move by iQiyi. The idol group star brings practical experience to help the contestants, and his large following ensures the show to tap into a pre-existing market. For iQiyi, inviting popular pop stars has become a very reliable means of assuring viewership and generating buzz. The same goes for the many shows that preceded it: “The Rap of China” had Kris Wu, “Hot-Blood Dance Crew” invited Lu Han as well as Jackson Wang, who also made an appearance on “Idol.”
Of course, as much attraction as Zhang has, he couldn’t single-handedly help generate popularity for the show.
Last week, a video of celebrities cheering on for the contestants on “Idol” went viral. Angelababy, Kevin Tsai, and Jam Hsiao were among those that appeared in the video. According to iQiyi, the contestants were selected by top management companies, assuring the quality of their performance. The celebrity endorsement then ensured the considerable attention that the show has received.
Of course, there are a few exceptions to this. Fan Chengcheng, one of the contestants on “Idol,” is reportedly the brother of famous actor, Fan Bingbing, and as a result, he has become the target for public scrutiny. Another contestant, “August” Cai Xukun, had already accumulated over 1.64 million followers on Weibo before participating in the show.
Let’s rewind back to late 2016.
At that time, China-South Korea relations had fallen to its lowest in recent times due to the THAAD fallout. The Chinese government implemented restrictions that prevented Korean artists’ presence in the Chinese market, and many Korean variety shows were pulled from online platforms. These actions resulted in a giant void in the idol entertainment market, leaving fans disappointed and craving. In response to the restrictions, Chinese entertainment companies decided to take matters into their own hands and “produce” idols themselves. The future seemed promising with a highly absorbent market. However, due to the lack of experience and the rush to push out content, most of the shows targeting the idol market ended in failure.
However, the emergence of “Produce” created lucrative opportunities for iQiyi. “Idol,” as a result, prompted a resurgence of mass idol culture in China.
Aside from using celebrities and the influence of “Produce,” the iQiyi show has also developed its own model for cultivating aspiring idols. On iQiyi’s official forum, “Bubbles,” countless threads discussing the show are posted daily, allowing fans and the occasional passers-by to interact, and this helped the topic to quickly move to the top of the entertainment section in the forum. On Bilibili, many fans had already taken the initiative before the premiere of the show to post videos promoting their favorite contestants. On Weibo, the topic “Idol Producer” reached 2 billion tags just 1 hour after the first episode had gone live. As of the time of writing, the topic has received nearly 2.4 billion reads and has had over 10.8 million discussion posts, grasping the top spot for trending topics.
“How popular is this show exactly?” One might ask. For example, Chen Zhengnong, one of the contestants and an otherwise ordinary user on Weibo prior to the airing of the first episode, went from around 2000 followers to over 510 thousand followers on Weibo overnight. This couldn’t be possible without iQiyi’s careful plotting.
Previously, it was reported that in order to retain fans and attract new ones, iQiyi formed a special team to communicate with fans, listening to their feedback and adjusting the show accordingly. Additionally, iQiyi later released footages that didn’t make the final cut due to time constraint, allowing the fans to have something to chew on even after the broadcasts are over. But most importantly, “Idol” allowed fans to have a say in who gets eliminated and who gets to stay; it’s this sense of participation that creates the drive for the fans to root even harder for their idols. Not only did this strategy work, it has also created many loyal fans in a very short time.
With fame comes great scrutiny, and the public took no time to criticize the show. First, the contestants’ performances were mocked for their naivety and unprofessionalism, therefore not worthy of the title of an “idol.” Then, their personal styles became a point of controversy. Later, it was even reported that certain contestants were forced to quit due to discrimination against women. Zhang Yixing and Jackson Wang were also questioned for whether or not they were qualified to judge the contest, despite the views that they may have generated for the show. After all, the original “Produce” invited experienced instructors in the industry that can provide actual, useful advice for the contestants’ development. On the other hand, “Idol” really only invited the celebrities to generate buzz and not to give something useful to the contestants.
It should be noted that, however, despite the doubts and criticism, the current state of the Chinese entertainment industry doesn’t really lend itself well to creating domestic idol supergroups like Korea’s EXO or Big Bang. Aside from looks and skills, how well an artist/artists can be packaged is also an important factor in the overall success.
Looking at the history of supergroups, from H.O.T. to Shinhwa, to the “second-generation” TVXQ and Super Junior, as well as Girls’ Generation, then to Big Bang and EXO, it’s not difficult to see how much effort the Korean entertainment industry puts into packaging these ultra-popular groups. In China, however, the idol industry is still very much in the dark ages, with little experience and few success cases to study from. It looks as if the Chinese “idol creation” industry has a very long way to go before it can even start to replicate the business model of the Koreans. But is it possible to use money to “fill in the gap?”
The answer is, for the most part, no. While these contests can temporarily generate buzz around contestants, after the shows are over, they need to rethink their strategies and face the general public in a brand new way in order to stay relevant. Many investors fail to recognize the importance of this, and would often end up spending huge amounts of money with less-than-ideal outcomes. What makes matters worse, is that barely any local TV stations have the resources or the infrastructure to provide a platform to allow these ex-contestants to further develop their careers. As a stark contrast, many Korean TV stations host singing competitions of some sort, and their frequent broadcast schedules allow for a sustainable career for artists and idols alike.
Wanna One, a boy band formed by the final 11 contestants on season 2 of “Produce,” is a prime example of this continued development. Not only did they receive attention during the contest, the band furthered its career after the season concluded, winning multiple awards at the Seoul Music Awards and the Korean Music Awards.
Shifting attention back to the Chinese market, our interview with several viewers of “Idol” revealed some serious problems. Some mentioned that the reason why they would watch the show was merely that of Fan Bingbing’s brother’s involvement. Others have expressed that they’re only watching to kill time because they deem the show more as one of the variety/comedy variety.
This is seriously worrying, and it shows one of the biggest flaws of the Chinese show: it doesn’t see itself as a serious contest, and as a result, its outcome will be mediocre at best. If the producers are more focused on entertaining and catering to the audience, it really limits the educational and useful information that the contestants can get out of the show. Furthermore, it may even mean a ruined career for some.
What will these idols do after the hype has all died down? Even though iQiyi has assured us that they have created a plethora of plans to sustain their careers, under the current industry conditions, the future of these young celebrities that were thrust into overnight fame is largely uncertain, and it’s not only their problem–it is something that the entire industry is responsible for.
Of course, in these uncertain times, anything can happen. Maybe the next Kris Wu is just around the corner, or maybe some of them are more than happy to be an internet celebrity. But ultimately, whether or not one can become an idol, and continue to be one, is up to the individual.
translated by Kane Ge
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