Article. Lee Jiyeon
Design. Jeon Yurim
Photo Credit. Each YouTube channel’s respective owner

Just four days after the first part of episode one of The Game Caterers 2 x HYBE was released on July 15, the video, which stars the artists under HYBE LABELS, had already been viewed 7,039,918 times as of July 18. Part one of the episode was the top trending video on YouTube the day following its release, while parts two and three trended in second and seventh place, respectively. With the release of the videos, phrases related to the show, like “our stars,” “strength of body and mind” and “producer Na,” were trending all over Twitter. And that’s the reason idols are keener to appear on web variety shows than similar shows on TV. When SEVENTEEN released their album Face the Sun, they held a collaboration between their own series, GOING SEVENTEEN, and another popular web series, MMTG, calling the project GOING SVT X MMTG. By recording together but airing different videos on their respective channels, the two series found a lot of attentive viewers. SAKURA and KIM CHAEWON, two members of LE SSERAFIM, first promoted the group’s debut on YouTube as well, through channels ODG and Pixid. Notably, Jaejae, the host of MMTG, even went to Cannes and interviewed IU, Song Kang-ho, Gang Dong Won and Lee Joo Young, the cast of the movie Broker. Clearly, web series are taking over the function that TV shows once performed.

Kim Hyung Eun, team leader of the Artist Management Team at SOURCE MUSIC, LE SSERAFIM’s label, explained that “SAKURA was looking for a show where she could express the history behind her 10 years as an idol and her ambition to work in Korea” and how that led her to appear on ODG. In the lead-up to LE SSERAFIM’s debut, SAKURA went a long time without seeing her fans, and she was looking for a series where she could communicate to them all the stories she has with her group’s members as a regular person. KIM CHAEWON, meanwhile, met 20 of her long-time fans and by appearing in a video titled “20:1 Balance Game” on the channel Pixid she talked to them about her off time. While on ODG, SAKURA met two children—one Korean and one Japanese—and told them all about how she was making her third debut, this time as a member of LE SSERAFIM. Yoon Sung Won, the director for ODG, explained the motivation behind the video as “a good opportunity for SAKURA and the program to demonstrate how she’s experienced both cultures in a natural fashion.” Web variety shows are special because they “don’t simply go after the same view of celebrities as in older media but show their concerns and the thoughts they have as a regular person,” and “viewers can hear stories and see sides of them they’ve never encountered elsewhere.” Typical variety shows on TV can’t easily change their format to match the characteristics of their guests unless they’re reality-variety crossovers. Web variety shows, meanwhile, take pains to bring their subjects’ strengths and emotional stories to the screen. Whereas collaborations between popular programs on competing TV networks is nearly impossible, MMTG and GOING SEVENTEEN were able to film together and edit the footage into their own separate videos.

“Since there’s no restrictions when it comes to YouTube channels, people naturally feel optimistic about appearing on web variety shows,” Lee Sung Seok, part leader of the Media Management Part 2 at BIGHIT MUSIC that oversees media promotion for TOMORROW X TOGETHER, said. According to him, the entertainment industry feels there are “definitely certain opportunities to be had from appearing in a web series when promoting” and that such appearances can send viewers “a clear message that this is a show especially for the group because their name appears in the title of the videos, unlike with TV variety shows.” The reason for this is closely related to the format of web shows themselves, which tend to have relatively short running times compared to their TV counterparts. Kang Ga-in, a writer for the increasingly popular Idol Human Theater, explained that “web variety shows need to get their point across very quickly in videos of 20 to 30 minutes in length,” adding, “Sometimes we think we already edited the video with fast cuts, but fans are watching at 1.5x speed.” Unlike on TV, where a set amount of time has to be filled, shows on the Web have relative freedom when it comes to content and format. The episode of Idol Human Theater that TOMORROW X TOGETHER did for their minisode 2: Thursday’s Child comeback, for example, was notable for the staff from their protocol team joining the group members on-screen. “We thought the chemistry between the members and their protocol team would come across better if we did a segment like Young Power, Open Your Heart,” Kang said, resulting in a video that demonstrates the relationship between the TOMORROW X TOGETHER members and their staff well. The episode also reached two million views faster than any other in the series.

According to Nasmedia’s 2021 Digital Media Usage Survey, 99.6% of teenagers use YouTube and 94.4% of people in their 20s do as well. Univ Tomorrow Research Laboratory for the Twenties put out a report titled Millennial and Generation Z Contactless Leisure Time During COVID-19 that similarly found that the number-one activity among those generations was watching YouTube, at 72.8%. YouTube has already supplanted TV for viewers in their teens, 20s and 30s. “YouTube is full of ‘FanTube’ videos made by fans,” Idol Human Theater producer Kim Eunha said regarding the attraction of web shows to younger viewers, “and you can quickly flip through them whenever you want, so it’s natural that young fans would watch a lot of web variety shows since all their favorites are already on YouTube.” That’s why web shows are able to change to better suit their guests: They can do that because there’s a clear target audience and their tastes and the trends viewers are after are also clear. The producers of these shows can also book guests that line up with viewers’ tastes and center them around the topics and formats audiences want to see most. Web variety shows designed around idols are the best example of this recently. Idol Human Theater—a twist on KBS’s popular Screening Humanity that instead puts a comic spin on the everyday lives of idols—changes in format depending on the idols who appear as guests on the show. The title of the most recent episode with TOMORROW X TOGETHER is “Shocking truths behind sweet break time,” reflecting a change that has taken place within the group where they can now be openly mischievous toward their producer, Bang Si-hyuk, unlike around the time of their debut. Even idol-centric web shows with a set concept, like IDOL’s Snack Spree and HIT Village, know basic information about the idols who appear on them as guests.
Whenever the production team behind The Game Caterers 2 x HYBE, which is produced by Na Yeongseok, pointed out the SEVENTEEN members’ showmanship and personalities, they kept bringing up GOING SEVENTEEN. It’s clear how important the relationship between web variety shows and idols is by looking at The Game Caterers: The production team researched SEVENTEEN in detail when making the program, and they also repeatedly mention the group’s own show without having to explain what it is. The most views a collaborative episode of The Game Caterers has received is episode two, part two of The Game Caterers x RUN BTS, which was watched 19,705,671 times as of July 18. The episode of MMTG featuring SEVENTEEN (episode 217) was also viewed 6,546,884 times as of the same day—the second highest for any video in the series. For Showterview with Jessi, the most-viewed video is episode 63, featuring TOMORROW X TOGETHER, which is also the most of any web variety show episode the group has appeared on (13,334,653 views as of July 18). Another advantage to idols appearing on web variety shows is that they can show aspects of themselves that usually go unseen. Lee, the Music Management Team head, said “there was a consensus that Jessi should do it—that Jessi would be able to show a raw side of TOMORROW X TOGETHER.” SOOBIN, one of the members of the boy band, was also the guest on the first episode of Lee Youngji’s show Although There Is Nothing Much Prepared and said he thinks that, “among the programs I joined since my debut, this program showed my real side.”

The YouTube algorithm, which recommends videos to users, is another reason idols and web variety shows work so well together. “YouTube is good for introducing people to a side of things they wouldn’t otherwise want to if not for the algorithm,” Kim, the producer, said. That algorithm brings web variety shows not only to fans of those idols but also fans of other idols and a wider general audience as well, leading to comments like, “I’m not a fan of this artist, but I can’t help watching this—I think I’ll become a fan,” and, “I’m a fan of a different artist, but the algorithm led me to this video and I keep coming back to watch it again.” Such web series are one of the best ways idols can present themselves to people outside their fanbase, especially as the series can target potential fans, too. They spread through the algorithm like wildfire, the comments make for immediate feedback and a continuous increase in comments and views can lead the video to go viral. Lee, who “usually reads almost all the comments,” says this is why, “whenever an episode of Idol Human Theater featuring TOMORROW X TOGETHER comes out, it’s not just their fans leaving comments, but other people, too.” In this era, people don’t even have to search for you—the algorithm will bring in the views for you.

Nothing about this is new. MMTG already took a different look at the way the K-pop industry is structured around idols a few years ago on The Best Hidden Songs. Web variety shows have long since been a key method of promoting albums during an artist’s debut and subsequent comebacks. Kim, the team leader, called “web variety shows” one “way in which artists and their messages can reach more people.” And it’s clear we’ve already entered an era where things are taking place on a bigger scale than before, like on The Game Caterers 2 x HYBE. The world is already different—popular videos, algorithm recommendations, subscriptions, likes and comments are all constantly changing. Just as idols have different generations, variety shows and the media environment differentiates by generation, too. It’s only natural since the generation of the main consumer group has changed.