This time next month, a new girl group called I.O.I will release their debut album. Usually, newcomers to the K-pop scene are just one of many fighting for the spotlight, until a popular fancam or kick-ass tune gets the public sitting up and taking more notice. However, in this case, the girls of I.O.I are already well-known, and not just in Korea. They have already been selling digital tracks, promoting products on national commercials, and joining festival lineups. Yet they haven’t even officially debuted. Yes, it’s a K-pop marketing manager’s dream.

Why? Because they were the result of a weekly Mnet audition show, called Produce 101. In case you didn’t see the show, here’s a rundown of what happened: it started out with 101 female trainees from various labels, all hoping to debut. Every week they performed songs and dances, and the public could vote (both in person and online) for the girls they wanted to stay in the group. At first, you were asked to vote for 11 girls (the final number of the group), but the system changed midway through the show, allowing you to only vote once for one girl each day. Every few weeks the numbers were cut, until the final episode which saw 22 go to the final 11.

Of course, the UK is no stranger to audition shows; The X-Factor is still going strong, and Popstars in late 2000 saw a similar process create the group Hear’Say, who made one of the fastest selling UK singles of all time. But the format of this show was a little different. No Susan Boyles here, as the particpants were all eager, ambitious young label trainees, some with over 10 years’ experience in idol training. The format also blended in some Big Brother; the girls lived together in dorms during the main filming of the show, so we got to see them off stage too; in one episode being rudely awoken by their own song and having to do a run in (horrors!) bare faces before breakfast.

I was addicted to the show, mainly because I love to see ‘behind-the-scenes’ K-pop, and this format gives it in spades. From hapless and tired trainees trying to keep up with new dance choreography, to the in-group rivalry when the centre position had to be voted on, it was fascinating to watch, and free to vote online. I was only disappointed that the fitness, diet and make-up sections of the TV show were edited so short while the ranking announcement was painfully and needlessly drawn out.

A key point of the format is letting the public have some say in the lineup. On many shows, the TV judges can instantly dismiss people, before they get anywhere near the public vote. Not so here. We could vote for the underdogs; and that meant someone like Kim Sohye from Redline Entertainment, an agency that focuses on acting, could still rise in the ranks despite her clear ineptitude during the audition process. It’s not fair, some netizens frothed, that she gets to take a spot above other people who are better trained than her. Ah, but that’s public popularity for you – it seems something about Sohye’s plucky determination to nail the choreo even though it wasn’t her forte really made her a hit with the public.

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To be fair, are idol groups always full of the very best singer-dancers at debut? Rarely.The beauty of many K-pop groups is they have a mix; two or three strong lead vocals, some strong dancers, maybe one good rapper; and while the group matures, their skills all mature too. We don’t expect perfection in every area from every member. But we do expect them to be entertaining, and at least try their best to give us a good show. All the girls who made the final 11 proved that in various ways on the Mnet show.

So, what’s the biggest beef with this Pick Me format? While the voting system makes the public feel that we’re in control of the final lineup, our decisions are still heavily being influenced by the show’s producers. Even within each a one hour episode, not every girl was going to get equal air time. Perhaps some got more ‘character development’ than others, and visibly rose in rankings after that. Perhaps some girls’ air time was cut because it didn’t make for an interesting enough story. Some girls began the show in obscurity and ended it pretty much the same way, back to the training halls of their label to dust off and try again. The large number of initial trainees is central to this issue. How could 101 girls possibly hope to get equal air time? It just wasn’t going to happen. Starting out with a smaller group, such as 30, might have been a better deal for all involved.

Nonetheless, we the public picked our girls, so they can expect major support as they begin their idol life. Those who didn’t get picked but made it to the final few episodes are already enjoying their new-found fame, like Jellyfish’s Kim Nayoung who appears in VIXX’s comeback MV Dynamite.

Rumours abound that Produce 101 might return sometime with a male version. Would you watch it? Are you supporting the I.O.I girls debut? Did you love the show format, or hate it? Feel free to leave a comment below.


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British writer and editor living in Japan. Currently studying Japanese, Korean, K-pop dance, and the fine form of 이성종's legs.