2021-08-04 formateast

The secret to the success of South Korean formats

"“South Korea is famous for producing formats customised for this era” – KOCCA’s DoHyung Lee"

Execs from outfits including the BBC, Thames and Bandicoot reflect on the rise of South Korean formats and discuss why they resonate with primetime audiences in the UK.

South Korean IP creators are no longer the new kids on the block, with scripted formats such as Korean public broadcaster KBS’s medical drama The Good Doctor and college-admission scandal series Sky Castle [TriBeCa] greenlit by international broadcasters including ABC and NBC in the US.

Korean entertainment formats are similarly sought-after worldwide and often crop up in major broadcasters’ primetime schedules, especially in the UK. Among them are The Masked Singer, based on Korean broadcaster MBC’s King of Masked Singer, which aired on Saturday nights on commercial broadcaster ITV, and I Can See Your Voice, a mystery music gameshow created by Korean media conglomerate CJ ENM and ordered by  ubcaster the BBC.

BBC Entertainment commissioning editor Rachel Ashdown was drawn to I Can See Your Voice’s warmth and joyfulness. Speaking during a digital Royal Television Society event on Korean formats, she said: “We look for content that has heart, humour and scale, and I Can See Your Voice had all three. It’s warm and you’re in on the joke. We’re also always looking for the next casting call, and we found that with I Can See Your Voice with bad singers.

Rachel Ashdown

The format’s other attractive features were its pacing and audience involvement, according to Ashdown. “When I first saw the format, what hit me was the number of reveals in it, because you see a lot of formats were everything happens at the very end,” she said. “One of the things that helped it land was the play-along factor, which was particularly important during the coronavirus pandemic. It was easy to play along on your sofa with the rest of your family, as well as people you might not be with. We heard stories of people setting up WhatsApp groups.”

For Amelia Brown, MD of Thames and executive producer of I Can See Your Voice, much the show’s success is down to the way it introduces contestants. “One of the most important elements is the contestant walking out on stage, as you need the viewer to be interested in that person from the very beginning,” she said. “The Koreans took that very simple idea and turned it and gamified it. It was simple but brilliant.”

As for the wider appeal of Korean formats, Brown cited IP holders’ willingness to take risks: “I learnt that Koreans are risk-takers and super creative. They genuinely know what blue-sky thinking is and what thinking outside of the box means. For them, the more bonkers something is, the better, and that’s what audiences like.”

This sentiment was shared by Derek McLean, MD of Bandicoot and executive producer of The Masked Singer and The Masked Dancer. The Argonon-owned prodco, which was founded in 2017, was granted the rights to produce ITV’s version of mega-hit format The Masked Singer, despite being a “small, Scottish company,” according to McLean, who said this proves Korean format holders are “mavericks.” “They saw we were ahead of the game, wanted to do the show and had an idea,” he explained. “It goes heart to the Korean culture and sensibilities – they’re risk takers and mavericks.”

This extends to producing local versions of Korean IP, according to McLean. The exec said Korean format holders aren’t precious with their IP and are open to making changes to their show ideas. “Our Korean partners give us far more leeway to interpret the format in any way we want and to make it right for our domestic markets and right for each different market. That’s why these formats are all massively successful – Korean partners are opening to changing the format to make it work,” he said.

Derek McLean

“The criticism I would have of some European format holders is that they’re hellbent on not changing the music, not changing the title and making sure it looks exactly the same in every country. That doesn’t help sell a show into your domestic market.”

In addition, McLean said that in Europe, format creators focus too much on breaking boundaries, rather than sticking with the obvious. The beauty of Korean formats, he added, is that they don’t try to be too clever, while delivering what mass audiences want to watch on the small screen.

“Sometimes we try too hard and go too far in the development process away from what the public loves,” he noted. “These Korean programmes show you that you just need a tiny turn
of the wheel to make it different, and it’s important to keep the obvious tropes that viewers love.”

Albert Park knows a thing or two about The Masked Dancer is a spin-off from global hit The Masked Singer

formats as executive of format sales at Korean media giant CJ ENM, the company behind I Can See Your Voice. Both buyers and creators are scrabbling for the next hit format from Korea, but Park predicts his colleagues will continue to pump out music competition shows with a twist.

“Our in-house creators are thinking about combining music shows with different elements like dating,” he said. “We currently have a format called Love at First Song, which combines a music duo competition with romance. Social experiment and reality shows are also being worked on.”

It’s no surprise there are already several new Korean formats proving a hit in their home country that are yet to make a splash in international waters. Up for grabs is The Masked Singer creator Wonwoo Park’s latest music gameshow, Lotto Singer, in which 45 singers compete to be ranked in the top 6, with viewers able to win money if they correctly guess the finalists.

There is also EXChange, which features four separated couples living in a house together as each person tries to conceal the identity of their ex, while Sing Again gives once popular singers a second shot at fame. “EXChange is doing really well,” Park added. “And I know the UK is hot on dating shows…”