This year aired season 22 of the United States’ “The Bachelor,” season 14 of “The Bachelorette,” and season four of both United Kingdom’s “Love Island” and Japan’s “Terrace House.” Regardless of borders, reality dating show is a timeless genre that keeps viewers on their toes. Korea indeed is not an exception. After a period of recession, the format is making its way back once again. The huge hit of “Heart Signal Season 2” led to similar programs that deal with romantic relationships. Subsequent programs such as “Love Catcher,” which was broadcasted on Mnet, and “Romance Package” on SBS likewise were favorably received. The Argus analyzed this resurgence of popularity by examining the changes of program adjuncts along with some issues, and suggests certain improvements.
The differences between then and now
The natural sketch of romance
The majority of cast members who have nothing to do with the entertainment industry, together with specific program components that give an undirected natural mood make the viewers more engaged in the shows. The early 2000s’ “Match Made in Heaven,” “Love Letter” and “The War of Roses” all took place in a studio specially made for filming. Even though some of them were introduced as shows that matched a celebrity with a non-celebrity, the cast members who were said not to be celebrities were in fact would-be entertainers. The show host led segments such as “charm appeal corner” or “the final choice corner,” which seemed to forcefully couple the cast members.
As for “Jjak,” the program starred a majority of non-celebrity cast members like nowadays, and there were no show hosts. However, the production crew continuously interfered and acted as program hosts, while the cast members wore uniforms with factitious designations like “Male number 1” or “Female number 1” written on them. During the filming, the cast had to be in a certain guest house or near it, and had to win a game in order to get a date with someone whom they liked. This was unnatural compared to dates in real life, which are based on people’s free will.
In contrast, the dating shows nowadays take place in a hotel or a single-family house that is an ordinarily existing building used for purposes besides filming. Cast members can also take a trip far away for a date. These realistic portrayals are more likely to strike a responsive chord and intrigue the viewers. “One of the notable changes in today’s dating programs is that the cast members freely come and go between indoor and outdoor spaces. These diversified situational settings that the programs portray lend a realistic air to the scenes, along with some fun and aesthetics,” said culture critic, Kim Heon-sik.
Moreover, there are far fewer interruptions by third parties. Without any games or missions, all the cast members have equal opportunity to date others. Those free and causal meetings develop affinity and deeper emotions among one another. “Since the program observes the cast members only with cameras that are already installed in the room without any outside interruption, I feel that the progress of romance is depicted more naturally,” said Gi Do-young, a student at HUFS.
These settings break the common notion that these reality shows are implicitly scripted and their situations are all planned. Consequently, the viewers feel the show is more authentic when some makes it to real couples.
Indirect portrayal of emotions
Another common feature is that these shows insinuate the feelings that the cast members have rather than directly conveying them. As an example with a past program, The War of Roses demanded the participants to choose who they liked the most from their first meeting. After that, the program focused on the way the cast member would win that person’s heart by making them sing or dance for his or her crush.
On the other hand, the programs these days do not clearly tell who likes whom. Instead, they focus on the actions of the cast members, sometimes as small as a quiver of one’s eyes. By shooting and editing the action in detail, the flow of emotions wholly transfers to the viewers. The cast members select the partner whom they like the most that day, but there is always a possibility that the most desirable partner could change at any time.
Even at the last moment, the cast members do not need to define their relationship. Since the programs do not show the exact feelings that the cast members have, viewers cannot easily predict the results, and this builds up the tension of the program.
“Even if the cast members go on a date, I cannot know for sure if they really like each other or not. This is one of the reasons why I cannot miss even a single episode,” said Kim Chae-won, a student at Chung-Ang University. Moreover, the undefined relationships that they have seem more to reflect the current trend of preferring a fling rather than a serious relationship.
The divorce from reality
The fancy penthouse or the outstanding academic backgrounds and lucrative careers that the cast members have seem far removed from reality. Even if the cast members are introduced as ordinary members of society, a large portion of the cast members have prestigious jobs such as a doctor or a senior civil servant, or come from a wealthy family. These cast members are relatively unrealistic potential dating partners in real life. “Their appearance, academic background, and occupations seem to be in a league of their own. This might give the impression that finding love depends on what background one has and may make some viewers feel helpless,” said critic Kim Heon-sik.
Viewers sometimes compare themselves with these cast members and sense the gap between the program and reality. The place they live in, which is where ordinary people only dream of, aggravates the unrelatability viewers feel toward what is on the TV screen.
Program editing that points fingers at the cast
The attention that the cast members receive sometimes returns as a poison, in the form of slander and hateful comments. These insults often extend to the social media accounts of the cast members and affect their daily lives. There are many reasons for those malicious comments, and in some cases, the reason lies with the editing that shapes a negative image of a particular cast member.
“When the production team edits the recordings, they set a certain direction and create a narrative. This sometimes causes the cast members to get criticized even if it is not their fault. In this case, the damage is not only done to the program editors but to the cast members,” said culture critic Kim Heon-sik.
At Heart Signal Season 2, one of the male cast members won the hearts of both female cast members. However, the latter half of the program only focused on the romance between one of the women, which intensified the frame that the male cast member was a two-timer when he chose the other woman. This twist enraged the viewers, and hateful comments followed even after the end of the show, forcing the cast member to close his social media account.
In Love Catcher, quarrels between the female participants happened repeatedly. The show imparted meanings to the short responses and zoomed into the look in their eyes. The celebrity panel members exaggeratedly responded to those actions and defined them as a means of keeping each other in check. As a result, comments criticizing the rude or bossy behaviors were written under the related videos. Some raised suspicions of the director distorting the situation based on the fact that the female cast members made positive remarks about each other in interviews outside the program.
Ways for complementation
Inducing interest by friendliness
It should be noted that exclusivity is not a prerequisite of Korean reality dating shows. Instead, friendliness is another mechanism that draws popularity. TvN released the second series of its dating program “Cafe Amor” after the popularity of season one. The program features one-on-one blind dates of various people on every episode. The program does not ask the cast members to have an exceptional qualification, and the cast members seem more like the common people we meet in our daily lives. The celebrity panel watching the blind date gives some practical advice about the problems normal people face with dating. This narrows the gap viewers feel between the television and reality, which was formerly regarded as the fundamental problem of the Korean dating shows.
“Heart Signal made me feel like they were living and dating in a different world. Conversely, Cafe Amor presents one temporal meeting. The program does not show them afterward and leaves the relationship solely up to the participants themselves. This gives a more realistic look to the program,” said a student at HUFS on the request of anonymity.
Editing that does not damage the cast members
As the program concentrates on people’s emotions, which is more of a personal matter, heavy editing which could incite the general public is detrimental to cast members. Besides, hateful frames should be avoided as the cast members are people who have their own livelihoods behind the television scene.
The unpredictability of later episodes is understandably a key feature for a variety show. Nevertheless, the production crew should constantly prevent themselves from going too far to intrigue the viewers. Rather, they should improve the system by adding a way for the cast members to request corrections. Also, if there is any possibility that the program might harm the cast, the staff should be required to announce it to the related cast members and jointly decide how they will be featured.
Watching adventitious meetings of men and women gives as much a feeling of enjoyment as watching an episode of a well-plotted drama. Contriving new elements of the program thereby increasing its originality is also an impressive approach to a reality show. However, since this is a dating “reality” show and not a drama, it should focus more on the aspects to which the general viewers could relate. Moreover, as each of the participants is not a character of a plot, but an actual person who has a life, no one should be characterized as a baddie. Dating reality shows undoubtedly are not dramas. Thus, they should not be treated as such.
By Kim Hannah
Staff Reporter of Culture Section