Korean TV gets real

KOREA - The leads are unusual, but South Korea's reality shows are gaining fans for their feel-good vibe First, it was pretty boys. Now, it is the grandfathers' turn.

Whereas once the South Korean pop culture wave swept away fans with the likes of idol dramas filled with pretty faces, such as the 2009 hit series Boys Over Flowers, it is now cresting on the strength of reality series featuring faces that are not necessarily pretty - or even young.

Grandpas Over Flowers is the perfect symbol of that evolution of the Hallyu, or K-pop wave.

For one thing, its title clearly references Boys Over Flowers and it replaces the pretty boys of that show such as Lee Min Ho with senior actors.

The other key thing is that it is not a scripted drama but a reality/variety series. In the show, the four senior actors, who commonly play father and grandfather roles in dramas, are sent on backpacking trips in Europe and Taiwan.

The runaway success in the region of variety game show Running Man has opened the doors for such non-scripted Korean shows to gain overseas followings.

Grandpas Over Flowers is so popular in Taiwan that when the cast and crew went there to film, they were greeted at the airport with fans carrying banners.

Where Are We Going, Dad?, which follows the adventures of celebrity dads and their young children, has been remade in China.

The Real Men, which chronicles the army training of celebrities, attracts higher ratings than Running Man in South Korea, and so it could be only a matter of time before it strikes gold overseas.

Fans tell Life! that they love the shows for their originality and real, unscripted moments. Housewife Ng Leh Choo, 55, says: "I recognise the four grandpas from the Korean dramas. They have no qualms being themselves in front of the camera. It's refreshing - I don't think I've ever seen a programme like this." Mr Hwang Jin Woo, a senior manager at tvN cable network which created the show, says: "It's always better to choose something that is not shown before. These new things can bring more surprises.

"The show's producer likes to say this - surprises bring curiosity and curiosity links to the great motivation to watch a show."

Mr Hwang was in town for the Asia TV Forum & Market and ScreenSingapore earlier this month.

On Where Are We Going, Dad?, by Korean broadcaster Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), civil servant Cheryl Ho, 28, says: "I am a sucker for watching dads bond with kids.

"The idea of showing dads being affectionate is special because you usually don't see it in the Asian context. Asian dads are typically not this openly affectionate with their kids."

The show's producer Kang Gung explains that he was inspired by his own distant relationship with his father.

"Traditionally, fathers had to be strict. They needed to emphasise discipline, but now it's changing. The father is playing a more active role in the family," says MrKang, who was also present at the trade and conference events.

The trend among Korean television programme makers, he adds, is the rise of "observational reality shows" such as Where Are We Going, Dad? and The Real Men, also produced by MBC.

"Previously, it was what I call the great period of reality variety show. The show's only aim was to make people laugh.

"Things have gotten harder for people to live and earn money because of many political and social problems.

"Now the audiences cannot just laugh at the celebrities' antics. They need something more from TV shows. They need something 'healing'. This is a new era of observational reality shows."

Indeed, The Real Men and Where Are We Going, Dad? have been topping the Sunday primetime variety belt in South Korea for much of the year.

Mr Hwang of tvN agrees that the feel-good factor is important at the moment.

He says: "One thing for sure is that positiveness is a big trend. If you look at Grandpas Over Flowers or Where Are We Going, Dad?, it's all about fun and enjoyment.

"People are tired of conflict."

Local TV producers think their South Korean counterparts are pretty creative at coming up with new concepts.

Ms Karen Seah, 41, executive producer of home-grown reality shows Supermodelme and Sunsilk Academy Fantasia, says: "The concepts of these Korean shows are somewhat original and these are, in fact, a fast-growing genre of reality series that are hybrid documentary in style."

Unlike the typical reality show formats that have "an element of contestants being pitted against one another" and elimination rounds - seen in shows such as Survivor - she explains that these South Korean "docu-reality shows" focus on the journey of real folks by throwing them into difficult and challenging situations.

TV viewers in the region are catching on. China's top provincial station, Hunan Satellite TV, scored a ratings hit when it remade Where Are We Going, Dad? featuring celebrity dad-and-son pairings such as Taiwanese actor-singer Jimmy Lin and his four-year-old son, Kimi.

MBC's Mr Kang says the rights of the reality show have been sold to a television station in Hong Kong and his company is also in talks with an interested party from Vietnam.

There are ongoing discussions about buying the format of Grandpas Over Flowers in the United States and China, says tvN's Mr Hwang.

In Hong Kong, there appears to be a similar show on TVB station.

Three Amigos Bon Voyage, which was launched last month, follows the travels of the elderly trio of Bowie Wu, Patrick Tse and Joe Junior.

But do not be too hasty in writing off the pretty faces of South Korean entertainment - there will always be a place for them.

The network tvN has launched a companion series to Grandpas Over Flowers. Sisters Over Flowers has the same travelogue format but with veteran actresses instead of senior men - and the women are accompanied by a handsome young man as their porter, popular actor Lee Seung Gi.

One eager fan is administrative executive Jessica An, 30, who has already watched it online. While she says she enjoys such travel variety shows, she admits: "It's always nice to watch Seung Gi on variety shows."


Army training for stars

The Real Men

First aired in South Korea: April

Format: South Korean celebrities turn army recruits for a week, training alongside common men at a military base.

Cast: The original cast comprised actors Ryu Soo Young and Kim Soo Ro, comedian Seo Kyung Suk, boyband Mblaq member Mir, Australian comedian Sam Hammington and actor-singer Son Jin Young.

The line-up is changed later as some recruits leave because of work commitments. Among the notable additions to the show is heart-throb actor Jang Hyuk.

Appeal: Although Running Man continues to be well-received overseas, it has been lagging at home behind The Real Men, which has recorded ratings of 20 per cent among all viewers in South Korea.

Currently, The Real Men is the No. 1 show in the coveted Sunday night slot in South Korea.

In Singapore, undergraduate Lim Yu Xin, 22, likes it because "it shows the tough side of the celebrities when they undergo training, and the gentle side of them when they break down in their barracks or during interviews".

For student Kwek Shi Ying, 15, it is the show's fish-out-of-water comedy that tickles her. She says: "Sam Hammington is an Australian comedian living in Korea. He has never had the chance to experience Korean military life before. Being the only non-Korean on the show, he gets into quite a bit of trouble."

Where to watch it: Catch clips on MBC Entertainment YouTube Channel at www.youtube.com/user/MBCentertainment

Rush from real emergencies

Heart Beat

First aired in South Korea: October

Format: A group of celebrities undergo training at a fire-fighting school in the southern city of Busan to handle real-life emergencies. They are also tasked to learn and administer first aid to patients.

Cast: Besides actress Jeon Hye Bin (above), the cast include actors Lee Won Jong, Park Ki Woong, Jo Dong Hyuk and Choi Woo Shik.

Appeal: As Heart Beat only recently hit the Korean airwaves, the show's producers say that "it may take time for the domestic audiences to warm up to it".

They add that "the show's good ratings on cable channel One in Singapore have been encouraging". For the period of Nov 7 to Dec 5, One's Heart Beat was the third highest rated show in its time slot among all rated international channels on StarHub TV.

Singapore fans love it for the excitement of real-life emergencies and how game the celebrities have been. Secondary 3 student Kwek Shi Ying, 15, says: "Even in the middle of the night, they are sent out to save people. It was tough for them at first, but they improved over time.

"During an episode, an old woman was sent home after being left out on the road by a taxi driver. She was alone at home. It was touching when Jeon Hye Bin volunteered to stay behind to look after her."

Where to watch it: Heart Beat airs on One (StarHub TV channels 124, 820, 823 and 876, and SingTel mio TV channels 513 and 604) on Thursdays at 11.45pm.

Warm welcome for granddads

Grandpas Over Flowers (left)

First aired in South Korea: July

Format: Four veteran actors go on a backpacking trip around Europe. They are tasked to navigate the narrow alleys and confusing subways on their journey. Help for the grandpas come from 42-year-old actor Lee Seo Jin, who acts as their porter and tour guide.

Cast: Actors Lee Soon Jae, 78; Shin Goo, 76; Park Geun Hyeong, 73; and Baek Il Seob, 69. They are joined by 42-year-old actor Lee Seo Jin.

Appeal: The reality show debuted in South Korea with a rating of more than 4 per cent, which is considered a feat for a cable channel production.

To satisfy ardent followers of the show, extra episodes were filmed in Taiwan, where the grandpas were greeted by cheering fans armed with banners when they arrived at Taiwan Taoyuan International airport. Mr Hwang Jin Woo, a senior manager at tvN which produces the show, says: "These old backpackers were surprised by the warm reception - they thought that fans knew only the K-pop idols."

Grandpas' popularity prompted tvN to come up with the spin-off Sisters Over Flowers, which follows the travels of four veteran actresses, accompanied by heart-throb actor Lee Seung Gi.

Fans love Grandpas for, well, the grandpas.

Administrative executive Jessica An, 30, says: "These grandpas don't have an image to maintain. Having spent a long time in show business, they are at an age where they are secure and can be themselves in front of the camera."

Undergraduate Lim Yu Xin, 22, says: "Grandpas Over Flowers really took me by surprise when I first watched it. While most variety shows feature K-pop idols to boost the ratings, this show features veteran actors in their 60s and 70s."

Where to watch it: Catch Grandpas Over Flowers on channel M (SingTel mio TV Channel 518 and StarHub TV Channel 824) on Mondays at 11pm.

Sisters Over Flowers premieres on Channel M on Jan 6.

Heartwarming scene of bonding

Where Are We Going, Dad?

First aired in South Korea: January

Format: Five celebrity dads are given the task to take their kids on overnight trips to the Korean countryside. In later episodes, they venture outside of their home country and experience homestays in New Zealand.

Cast: Host Kim Sung Joo, actors Sung Dong Il and Lee Jong Hyuk, singer Yoon Min Soo, and footballer Song Jong Guk

Appeal: In a traditional Asian society where the mother is the family's main caregiver, this show offers a timely reflection of the dad's role in families.

It is among the most-watched TV shows in South Korea. Together with Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation's (MBC) The Real Men, the show is grouped under the MBC Sunday night variety segment.

The formidable double combo has topped the prime-time slot for much of the year. Korean entertainment news website allkpop reported that the MBC shows topped the time slot with 13.6 per cent on Sunday.

Chinese audiences also lapped up the China remake. Korea Times reported that the show had the highest viewership ratings during its time slot at 1.46 per cent on cable channel Hunan Satellite TV when it debuted on Oct 11.

An unofficial Facebook page in English dedicated to the Korean series' cutie pies and bumbling dads has more than 10,000 likes.

Ms Eunice Ngieng, 23, a marketing coordinator at an events company, says: "It's nice to see the interaction between the dads and the kids.

"At first, they were quite awkward with each other but started to warm up as their relationships improved. "It's very different from the rest of the reality shows, such as Running Man, which is more about fun and laughter."

Student Selena Teo, 15, says: "It is heartwarming as the busy celebrity dads will be able to give more love to their children and get to know them better. This is unlike programmes such as reality show We Got Married, where celebrities get matchmade in a make-believe pairing. We may not know if their feelings for each other are real. They may be just acting."

Civil servant Cheryl Ho, 28, adds: "Where Are We Going, Dad? is very real. It shows how the dads struggle with being with their own kids.

"This is probably because in their culture, women are meant to be the caretakers for the children while men just have to be breadwinners."

Where to watch it: Catch clips of Where Are We Going, Dad? on the MBC Entertainment YouTube Channel at www.youtube.com/user/ MBCentertainment.

The China version of Where Are We Going, Dad? premieres next year on Now Mango (StarHub TV Channel 836).

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