Variety Shows: Korea’s Next Biggest Cultural Export?

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Since the 1990s, South Korea has taken the world by storm with its pop culture. From the infectious anthems and iconic dances of K-pop, to heart-wrenching, tear-inducing dramas, the Hallyu Wave has won the hearts of audiences from all corners of the Earth.

However, it seems that one particular field of the Korean entertainment sphere has been steadily gaining traction as of late. Move over K-pop, it’s variety shows’ time to shine.

If you’re more into the glitz and glamour of K-pop, the popularity of variety shows might surprise you. In China, it was Running Man star Kim Jong Kook who ranked second in a poll of 2014 Korean Most Influential Stars, bested only by actor Kim Soohyun.

Running Man variety show

Running Man is one of Korea’s most popular variety shows. Picture: SBS

Running Man is enormously popular in many countries, and have even filmed episodes and held fan meetings in various locations in Asia and Australia. However, it is especially well-loved in China – so much so that they have even made their own version, titled Hurry Up Brother,  featuring local superstars such as Deng Chao and Angelababy as regulars.

It’s not only game-style variety shows that have been well-received in the Chinese market. A Bright World, the Chinese version of JTBC’s popular talk show Abnormal Summit, is set for its first broadcast this month.

Abnormal Summit variety show

Abnormal Summit’s G12 discuss Korean culture through the eyes of foreigners. Picture: JTBC

This second international spin-off, after Turkey’s Elİn Oğlu, will follow the same format as its Korean counterpart – a panel of non-Chinese men discussing social issues in China. Whether discussions will be as lively and stimulating as the original are yet to be seen.

Korean variety shows have even caught the interest of television networks in the United States. ­­Better Late Than Never is America’s adaptation of Grandpas Over Flowers, the travel program starring a group of energetic seniors backpacking across Europe. NBC acquired the rights from CJ Entertainment & Media in 2014, proving that it is not only Asian audiences who take to the charm of Korean programs.

Grandpas Over Flowers variety show

Grandpas over Flowers took these elderly adventurers to Paris. Picture: CJ E&M

Although it is easy to accuse these international networks of being creative copycats, with no fresh ideas of their own, the fact that they are taking and remaking these shows is only a testament to the strengths of Korean television. While K-pop may not be the Western market’s cup of tea, the humour and originality in the formats of Korea’s variety shows have universal appeal, and are easily adapted to cater to local tastes.

Variety shows are making their mark now more than ever, so if you’re not on this bandwagon already, now is a good time as ever. Whether you like the action of shows like Running Man, enjoy the slice-of-life reality shows like Dad, Where Are We Going, or seeing your favourite idols in new situations in Real Men, Roommate or We Got Married, there’s no doubt a show that’s right up your alley!

Discussion: Are variety shows Korea’s next biggest cultural export? What do you think of Korean variety shows – and their international remakes?

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