In the cut-throat industry of K-pop there are many gimmicks companies use to ensnare potential fans at the time of a group’s debut, including everything from mysterious teasers, à la EXO, to promises of unique concepts, which generally fall short. One tactic that usually does work is the creation of a reality TV show that features a newly formed group. These shows allow the members personalities to be showcased at the same time as, if not in preference to, their musical and dance abilities. For the international audiences these shows may not be accessible at the time of airing, since lack of popularity diminishes the demand for subbing, but they are always gems to go back to once you have discovered a new group and are looking for information about them.

These shows are, in essence, a marketing strategy and as such spend a lot of time highlighting the members’ in a way that says, “Look how talented we are.” The MCs, members, and guests spend a lot of time expressing the feeling that can only be summed up by the phrase often used in the K-pop industry, “Look forward to it!” In other words, this group is going places and this TV program is going to show you why. The shows don’t feel fake, per se, but the intention is obvious: these shows are a marketing tool and they aren’t just introducing you to a new group for the fun of it.

K-pop group reality shows have long been a staple of the industry and are a part of the debut of many groups that have gone on to gain massive popularity; like SNSD and Super Junior have, for example. Super Junior, back in 2005 before Kyuhyun was even part of the group, starred in KM’s Super Junior Show, a combination of diary, variety and music show. The show spent a part of each episode focusing on one member, which was a good way to highlight their different personalities and activities. Even if you weren’t a fan of Super Junior, or even K-pop, at the time, watching shows like KM’s Super Junior Show now is a way to get in touch with a group’s original image and the trends that were going on at that time in the industry (can you say big hair? Donghae certainly doesn’t look like that now).

SNSD’s debut show, airing in 2007, was entitled Girl’s Generation Goes to School. Instead of focusing on the members in an entertainment industry setting, as Super Junior’s show did, it focused more on their training to debut, dorm life, school life, etc. The show revealed a young, innocent side of SNSD that they have since grown out of (not being teenagers anymore, after all) and it probably won them many fans’ hearts at the time. This is one of the biggest uses for these debut reality shows, gaining fans by showcasing a human side of a K-pop group, sucking people in with their personalities; so when the group later releases a single fans will still see that underlying human personality, even through the elaborately produced stage persona. SNSD’s show in particular showed a lot of growth within the members, which is something every fan likes to be able to see.

The level of group popularity has little to do with these shows, however, since most of them air before or right as a group is being introduced to the public. Unfortunately, doing a debut reality also doesn’t guarantee popularity later in the career, despite the example Super Junior and SNSD set. U-KISS began their career with the show You Know U-KISS, and then All About U-KISS, and then they also had U-KISS Vampire, all of which were good introductory reality shows, as far as the genre goes, but none of which skyrocketed U-KISS to stardom.

Secret is another group that had a reality show for their debut, Secret Story in 2009, but who haven’t ever quite made it to huge popularity (although arguably they are more popular than U-KISS in Korea despite debuting later). These groups are good examples of the power of marketing and entertainment company, You Know U-KISS and Secret Story weren’t different from all the other debut reality shows, but because there is less interest in groups from companies outside the big three (SM, JYP, YG), the  initial overall popularity of the groups has still stayed low.

In 2012 there were more debuts than most of us could keep up with, and a good number of the groups had their own reality shows, just like their predecessors. The new boy group from T.O.P Media, 100%, appeared around debut with their label-mates, Teen Top, on a show called Teen Top Rising 100%. The girl group GLAM appeared in their own show, creatively titled GLAM, that showed their preparations for debut and was advertised as a “real music drama.” Even the publicity-shy YG has had its two current idol groups featured on their own reality shows — 2NE1 with the candid 2NE1 TV, and Big Bang with Big Bang Documentary, which showed the creation of the company’s first idol group.

There are many more, basically every-other group has some sort of variety show focused on them around debut in order for the company to introduce them better. With the exception of EXO, for some unknown reason, which was a huge failing on the part of SM Entertainment’s marketing department. EXO has gained popularity anyway, and the members spent a lot of time on variety shows being interviewed, but there wasn’t any “behind the scenes” feeling reality series that allowed potential fans to get to know the members in a more relaxed environment.

Along with independent reality shows that are specifically made for a debuting group, there are also shows that are established to give groups screen time without them having to create an independent program. One example of this is MTV Diary, which has featured groups such as BtoB, C-CLOWN, and MYNAME. These groups are on the less influential end of the K-pop entertainment company spectrum, but even so they are given a chance to show their personality through a reality show focused only on them. MTV Diary is a self-filmed reality show, which likely cuts down on production cost, and gives the members a chance to film whatever they want as they go about their schedule. The episodes tend to be short and there tend to be a lot of them, which definitely allows fans to get acquainted with group members.

These examples don’t even begin to represent the full spectrum of K-pop group reality shows, and it doesn’t even scrape the top layer of reality shows centered around debut, but the concept does translate closely across shows and groups. Debut reality shows are a great way to get to know K-pop groups before they put on all the makeup and fancy clothes for fans, and are an important marketing tool for companies that want their group to have an accessible image. These shows allow fans to feel like they grew together with the K-pop group, like they were there for the hardships of debuting, and likewise creates a firmer bond between fan and idol. Although these reality shows aren’t a golden ticket to popularity, they help create a more solid fan base and are always enjoyable to watch.

What is your favorite debut, or soon after, reality show? Do you go back and watch these shows after you discover a group? I, personally, really enjoyed Ta-Dah! It’s B.A.P and Boyfriend’s W Academy.

(SBS MTV, YouTube)