Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017, 7:06 PM CST – China

Culture

Kim Young-hee

Godfather of Variety

One of South Korea’s leading impresarios has arrived in China to tap into a seemingly unquenchable thirst for reality TV

Kim Young-hee Photo provided by Kim Young-hee

Publicity for The Greatest Love Photo from Internet

With Chinese TV largely dependent on foreign formats, South Korea, East Asia’s modern entertainment powerhouse, has emerged as a leading source of Chinese variety shows, even usurping the status once commanded by all-conquering Korean soap operas. A number of exceedingly successful reality shows, such as Go Fighting! and Hurry Up, Brothers, are inspired by or simply copied from South Korean originals.

Kim Young-hee might not be a household name in China, but his work has swept the nation’s screens. This South Korean TV producer created two extremely popular variety shows – reality singing contest I Am a Singer and celebrity parenting reality show and travelogue Where Are We Going, Dad?, both of which were imported and adapted by Hunan provincial TV and immediately became smash hits.

After working at South Korea’s MBC network for 29 years, Kim officially relocated to China in 2015, with his aim being to raise homegrown Chinese reality TV to new heights. His first pilot is a show centered on filial piety. While it is shot in the same “documentary variety show” style as Where Are We Going, Dad?, it is, in Kim’s words, “100 percent real” and unprecedented in global TV history.

Producer Extraordinaire

Kim looks much younger than his 56 years. Dressed in a preppy Korean fashion, with a backpack slung across his shoulder and a cup of Starbucks coffee in hand, he interrupts our reporter to talk into his Samsung smartphone decorated with a Hello Kitty sticker.

Kim’s amiable personality and polite smile have earned him the nickname “Uncle Rice” in South Korea, with fans claiming he reminds them of the image of a good-natured next-door neighbor always willing to share food.

Known as the godfather of Korean variety shows, Kim spent nearly three decades working for MBC, one of the three largest TV stations in South Korea, producing a series of extremely popular programs. In 2005, Kim, then 45, became the youngest general director of MBC’s variety show department. As one of the few top PDs (Producer-Directors) in Korean TV, Kim has been long acknowledged as an old hand in the industry.

Ever since arriving at MBC in 1986, Kim has directed and produced a series of classic variety shows, including Hidden Camera, Conscience Wins Refrigerator and Exclamation Point, helping usher in the golden age of variety and reality shows on MBC. Within his 29-year career, Kim has produced over 30 original programs, 90 percent of which have proven to be hits. Kim has received more accolades than any TV producer in South Korea, twice claiming the coveted Korean President’s Award.

In March 2011, Kim launched a new reality TV singing competition, I Am a Singer, open to professional billboard artists (rather than the general public), with voting power turned entirely over to the audience. Viewers relished the pitting of star against star on a highly competitive “battlefield.” The show’s ratings quickly eclipsed all other TV singing contests in Korea at the time, with even then President Lee Myung-bak speaking highly of the show and requesting a ticket to a live taping.

In January 2013, Kim made a foray into family entertainment with Where Are We Going, Dad?. In each season, five celebrity fathers travel with their children to the remote countryside where they compete with one another. The show’s instant success lay in warm and fuzzy scenes of dads cooking meals, playing with their kids in the mud, tucking them in at night and singing them to sleep. At its peak, the show commanded 20 percent of the Korean viewing audience.

I Am a Singer and Where Are We Going, Dad? were the two shows that brought Kim Young-hee’s work to Chinese audiences. Hunan TV, already known for its reality series, bought the rights to both shows and set about localizing them. In 2011, Kim began to shuttle between Seoul and Changsha, Hunan’s capital. Kim instructed the Chinese studio on how to improve every phase of the production process, ranging from camera angles and lighting to formatting and content design.

In 2013, both shows aired and triggered a craze for copycat formats across China. Kim received offers from a number of Chinese TV production companies.

“At first I declined all the invitations, for I never thought about working in China before. But later the huge success of Where Are We Going, Dad? in China made me realize that my works have been welcomed and appreciated in this country,” Kim told our reporter. “The possibility that my work could be acknowledged by more audiences in a much larger market made me feel a strong sense of ambition and fulfillment.”

In April 2015, Kim Young-hee resigned from MBC and came to China to embark on his new venture full-time. “If MBC is a small ‘crowded house’ then China’s TV stations can be seen as enormous ‘bleak houses,’” he said. “I believe that from now on a number of excellent shows can be produced based on collaboration between China and South Korea.”

In July that same year, Kim launched a new company (BlueFlame & Rice House) with China’s Guangdong BlueFlame Culture Media group. An eight-person, top-level Korean production team followed Kim to China, including six top PDs and two distinguished scriptwriters.

Genuine

Kim’s opening gambit in China is a new reality show revolving around the theme of filial piety.

“Filial piety is a core value deeply etched into traditional Chinese culture,” Kim told NewsChina. “In contemporary China, however, people seem to pay much less attention to it. My intention in creating this program is to remind people of the importance of this virtue.”

Kim added that today’s China is in great need of a reality show that can “exert positive influence on people’s spiritual world.”

Cooperating with a Chinese team led by Hunan TV producer Yan Dianya, the project started shooting in October 2015. Titled The Greatest Love and co-produced by Hunan TV and BlueFlame Culture Media, the show invites six celebrities and their parents to return to their respective hometowns for six days. The first season featured a lineup of household names, including Huang Xiaoming, Chen Qiao’en, Zheng Shuang, Cao Ge, Bao Bei’er and Du Chun.

Kim told our reporter that he is striving for authenticity in his latest venture. “Strictly speaking, up to now, no reality show has been 100 percent real,” he continued. “In every show, including Where Are We Going, Dad?, guest stars are actually performing in certain given personalities or roles – it’s half real, half faked. But The Greatest Love is a show that is 100 percent real. Such a ‘documentary reality show’ has never appeared before.”

The Greatest Love is shot according to a principle of “non-interference.” Guest stars will not be given any instructions or assigned tasks. While at home, no cameras or crew will be permitted to enter. Instead, over 40 concealed cameras will record the guests’ activities 24 hours a day.

The theme of filial piety and Kim’s “100 percent real” idea were met with skepticism from Chinese TV industry insiders and even Kim’s own Chinese colleagues.

“Many insiders are worried about Kim’s model. If the show follows the documentary format, it will turn out to be mild and slow, lacking excitement,” Peng Kan, the director of the research and development department of Legend Media, told NewsChina. Unlike Korean audiences, Peng claimed, Chinese TV viewers prefer more dramatic shows interspersed with “thrilling” games and heated competitions. Kim’s collaborator, Li Hongshan, the CBO of BlueFlame, also admitted that he had many initial reservations about the show.

Uncle Rice himself was insistent and stood his ground. Kim’s persistence impressed Yan Dianya, and left him resolved to realize the idea. “When everyone questioned the practicality of the project, he was the only one who firmly believed. His decisions, in the end, always proved to be right. Without his insistence, we wouldn’t have had such a wonderful result,” Yan told NewsChina.

Kim told our reporter that he is a great believer in the power of sincerity and emotions to move audiences. His years of experience have shaped Kim’s sharp sense of empathy. Although he knows Korean and Chinese audiences have different tastes and preferences, he believes that humans are united in their love for their parents. As a result of Kim’s “non-interference rule,” every subtle change of emotion and every almost imperceptible movement and expression have been captured in their entirety which, he believes, makes for an authentically powerful viewing experience.

The Greatest Love premiered on January 23. The show got a generally positive reaction, topping the ratings charts for its time slot with an audience share of 1.36 percent and over 20 million views on Hunan TV’s online platform. Schools were even said to have assigned watching the show as homework.

Certain scenes were singled out for praise, including when heartthrob actor Huang Xiaoming took his mother back to the 12-square-meter room in the city of Qingdao in which he was raised. In order to cook good food for his mother, Huang bought dozens of cookbooks and spent his nights planning the next day’s meals.

Singer Cao Ge, meanwhile, returned to his grandfather’s home in Guangdong Province with his father in tow, kneeling on the ground and bursting into tears when he saw the framed photographs of his late grandfather. Actor Du Chun and his father, who is also an actor, on the other hand, faced an awkward situation – discovering that, other than work, they had no common topics of conversation.

Philosophy

Kim Young-hee claims that a good TV show needs to have a positive social impact. “Entertainment, in fact, can be a wonderful weapon,” he told our reporter. “Nobody likes being lectured, but watching a variety show doesn’t feel like that. A good show can deliver social messages, touch its audience and make them think. Audiences are more willing to accept an entertaining variety show with 10 to 20 percent instructive content.”

Kim sums up his philosophy as “20 percent education and 80 percent entertainment.” Tapping into the unstoppable pulling power of celebrity, as palpable in China as anywhere, also helps. A predecessor to The Greatest Love, Let’s Read, sparked a reading craze in South Korea when celebrities appeared on TV chatting with schoolchildren about books. The production team also helped establish 15 libraries with profits from the show.

In Asian, Asian, Kim once again assembled a group of celebrities to work with South and Southeast Asian migrant laborers, who are only permitted to remain in South Korea for three years. In one episode, the production team flew to Pakistan to bring one worker’s mother to South Korea for a rare family gathering. In response to the episode, the speaker of South Korea’s National Assembly called the production company, and within six months, South Korean migrant labor laws had been amended.

Kim still receives fan mail from South Korea, with sentiments including: “You are much better than 100 politicians.” Kim’s focus is now on The Greatest Love. “I hope that after watching the show, people will remember to call their parents. If people do, I think the show can be considered successful.” 

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