China has embraced a South Korean talent show format that promises to deliver stardom to contestants who survive a grueling, 12-episode elimination boot camp, and a glimpse inside the K-pop industry machine to viewers.
Online series “Idol Producer” brings 100 contestants together to compete for nine spots in a boy band. Produced in partnership with iQIYI, one of China’s most popular video-streaming sites, the series premiere on Friday has now garnered over 170 million views and spawned dozens of trending topics on microblog platform Weibo — though some have accused the show of plagiarism.
Among the ambitious young heartthrobs on the show are Cai Xukun — who nearly made the cut for TFBoys, China’s most popular boy band — and Fan Chengcheng, the younger brother of acclaimed actress Fan Bingbing.
Unlike most television talent competitions, the contestants in “Idol Producer” are not aspiring amateurs. Instead, they are trainees signed to entertainment agencies that churn out stars with extensive coaching across the full gamut of K-pop arts: singing, dancing, rapping, and even acting.
Though it has produced countless bankable stars, the K-pop trainee system has also been called cruel and exploitative, with long contracts and little pay for young stars.
Some sharp-sighted viewers have also alleged that “Idol Producer” copies a South Korean series without giving due credit. Long before its premiere, Chinese fans of Korean pop culture pointed out that the show’s concept, formula, and design appeared similar to that of “Produce 101” — a two-season TV talent show that aired from 2016 to 2017 on Mnet, a music and youth-oriented channel in South Korea.
One user on microblog platform Weibo posted side-by-side comparisons of the two shows — from the sets, costumes, and lighting to the competition structure and audience voting interface — accusing “Idol Producer” of plagiarism and calling for a boycott.
“I thought they had bought the copyright because it looked exactly the same and was broadcast so boldly,” another user commented. iQIYI had not responded to Sixth Tone’s inquiries by time of publication. Nothing in the Chinese show’s press materials referred to its Korean counterpart.
Nonetheless, there were obvious hints of Sino-Korean collaboration on “Idol Producer,” which included several Chinese members of South Korean idol groups among the judges and mentors.
Zhang Yixing, more popularly known as “Lay” in cross-border supergroup EXO, is the main host, while the show’s mentors include Cheng Xiao from Cosmic Girls, Jackson Wang from GOT7, and Zhou Jieqiong, alias “Kyulkyung,” from PRISTIN.
Zhou, who made her own debut on Korean predecessor “Produce 101” in 2016, said in December at a Beijing press conference for the Chinese show that she would advise contestants not as a tough, demanding coach, but as a peer.
Despite questions around the show’s originality, contestants on “Idol Producer” seem to be one step closer to their dreams, with some gaining thousands of followers on Weibo overnight.
In April, the winning nine contestants will make their debut as a pop group — but rather than the lengthy contracts that the K-pop industry has been criticized for in the past, the band will only perform for 18 months before its members return to their agencies.
Editor: Qian Jinghua.
(Header image: Xiao Mu/VCG)