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(Yonhap Feature) Audition fever sweeps Korean TV

By Lisa Schroeder
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Oct. 26 (Yonhap) -- When Choi Sung-bong auditioned for the inaugural "Korea's Got Talent" in June, he grabbed the attention of millions of television viewers with his deep baritone, a surprise coming from a humble, uneducated 22-year-old who grew up in an orphanage.

   Although he only took second place in the August finale, he has a fan club, was invited to share some personal time with "Britain's Got Talent" star Paul Potts, and has been offered scholarships to continue singing.

   Choi is just one of many Koreans who've found new lives and fame by auditioning for the ubiquitous talent shows that started blanketing the airwaves this year.

   After the popularity of Korean broadcaster Mnet's reality TV singing competition "Superstar K2," the second season of the show, networks and cable channels quickly caught on to unveil their own versions at the beginning of 2011.

   Although reality singing competitions are over a decade old in Western countries, they're relatively new in Korea.

   "Audition-show formats from the West, like 'American Idol,' had limited pricing flexibility in the past, making it difficult for local broadcasters to license the rights to recreate a local version of the show," said Eddy Tan, Asia vice president for tvN, the broadcaster of "Korea's Got Talent." "More recently, these Western-format shows have started becoming more interested in reaching wider international audiences and started working more with Asian broadcasters, which is why we can see a trend of larger, more international shows appearing."

Choi Sung-bong, who captivated Korean viewers with his life story and singing on a TV audition program, was featured on CNN. (Yonhap file photo)

"Korea's Got Talent," the spin-off of the British and American versions, started airing this year.

   But traditional television networks have also been quick to produce their own audition-show clones. SBS, one of the national broadcasters, released "KPop Star" while its rival MBC aired "MBC Star Audition."

   And it's not just singing talent that's being broadcast.

   MBC revamped their "Our Sunday Night" lineup to introduce other talent audition shows: "New Recruit," for example, is a competition for aspiring network announcers, and "Survival - I Am a Singer" pits already famous singers against each other. Meanwhile, SBS produced the weight-loss show "Diet Survival Victory" and another show, "Miracle Audition," that searches for the next great actor.

   On KBS, the biggest major network, the program "Top Band" searches for diverse musical talent. Taking a page from U.S. hits, the cable channel OnStyle airs "Project Runway: Korea," which pits up-and-coming fashion designers against each other, and makes models compete in "Korea's Next Top Model."

   Other industries are also being reinvigorated by the general populace's interest in finding fame. Many department stores that offer singing lessons have reported significant increases in applications this year.

   Hyundai Department Store, for instance, reported in May that it had a 75 percent increase in applications for its summer singing class. Previously, most applicants had been older than 40 but now the number of students in their teens, 20s and 30s has seen a boost of 50 percent, the store said.

   Lotte Department Store's new singing class this year at their Yeongdeungpo branch attracted more than 100 students, while Shinsegae's Academy reported a 35 percent increase in applicants.

   Harris H. Kim, assistant professor of sociology at Ewha Womans University, said that the rise in the popularity of these audition shows reflects a change in traditional Korean culture.

Judges for Superstar K season 3 hold a press conference on Aug. 11, 2011, ahead of the start of one of Korea's most popular audition programs. (Yonhap file photo)

"Once upon a time, it was looked down upon to work in the entertainment industry as actors or singers," he said. "In traditional Confucian-influenced Korean society, success was narrowly defined within the context of academic superiority and entry into the 'mainstream' labor market. The fact that singing shows for adolescents have become popular suggests that Korean parents have a different perspective when it comes to the definition of their children's success."

   Kim also said that many of the aspiring stars come from poorer families, where college education might be unattainable, so success in the entertainment industry is encouraged.

   Choi Sung-bong of "Korea's Got Talent," for one, made headlines for his poor background as much as his singing. After his youth spent in an orphanage, he lived off the streets selling gum, often mixing with the wrong crowd, before he discovered he could sing.

   Huh Gak, the homely winner of "Superstar K2," used to clean ventilators with his twin brother before winning the show. He nudged out John Park, a well-educated, good-looking Korean-American who had previously competed on "American Idol."

   "There is an interesting parallel going on in Korea and what is happening in inner city ghettos in America," Kim said. "Poor African-American kids often opt to pursue a career as professional athletes rather than being faithful to their schoolwork, for obvious reasons. Korean kids, many from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, may feel the same way."

   Regardless of background, the reality-competition shows do attract millions of young Koreans seeking fame and fortune. More than 1.3 million people auditioned for "Superstar K2," and almost 2 million auditioned for a chance at the third season that started airing in mid-August.

   These shows also want to attract foreign talent interested in success in Korea, so many have now expanded overseas.

   Zinaida Aleksandroff, a Bulgarian student attending Kyung Hee University, wants to audition for a Korean reality TV competition, but only when she feels more confident speaking Korean. "I think talent shows are fun and also give a chance for success to the people who win," she said. "My goal is not to become rich and famous, but to work in what I love. Winning a cash prize for my family would be nice, even though I have slight interest in the money for myself."

   The winner of "Superstar K2" took home 200 million won (US$174,300), but the show's wild popularity has prompted the producers to up the prize money for the third season to 500 million won. For "Korea's Got Talent," the winner received 300 million won.

   "It is unfortunate, on the one hand, that Korea has become so obsessed with material success, physical appearance and shameless fame-seeking," Kim said. "Then again, think about the incredible pressures the teenagers are under to compete academically to enter university. The teenage suicide rate is very high in Korea. It's no wonder, given the stress they have to endure. Becoming a pop star may be seen as a way out."

   And tvN's Eddy Tan said that their new show "K-Pop Star Hunt" is not just about rising to fame easily.

   "The show's producers stress that to succeed, the candidates need to learn many lessons and will need to demonstrate endurance, education and dedication. In fact, winning will only be the beginning of the real journey," he said.