The popular Sunday variety Running Man is currently going through a mini-crisis. Despite the show’s prominent and growing international fanbase, ratings back home in Korea dropped – and continue to drop – significantly over the last few months. Just earlier this year, Running Man’s ratings were reaching all-time highs, averaging around 20% in viewership. Now, in only a matter of months, Running Man’s figures have been ranging around the low tens, exhibiting a noticeable change in a relatively short amount of time.
Thankfully, the ratings haven’t dropped to all-time lows yet; however, Running Man hasn’t experienced such figures since late 2010 and early 2011, back when the show was still new and progressing. Since then, the Running Man producers have enacted changes in efforts to gain more momentum. Those changes seemed to be successful, for the program’s been pretty prosperous over the last few years.
But now almost three years since that point, rather than continuing to grow, Running Man’s ratings have only regressed. Sure, a fan can easily blame the drop in ratings to external factors. Most noticeably, the show gained new, worthy competitors in the form of MBC’s new Sunday Night lineup of Dad! Where Are We Going? and Real Men, both of which have resonated very well with the Korean public. Previously, only KBS’s 1 Night 2 Days served as Running Man’s real competitor, so the rapid popularity of MBC’s new varieties certainly factored in the program’s ratings drop.
Moreover, one could also factor things like lackluster guests, the shared Good Sunday timeslot with the unfortunate Barefoot Friends, or other factors the Running Man cast and crew can’t inherently control. As a fan, I really do want to blame the drop of ratings to the external or circumstantial forces going against Running Man at the moment. However, it’s become undeniable that this decline in ratings also correlates to a decline in quality for the show, making this problem internal, and consequently, a little more troubling.
Here on Seoulbeats, we already pointed out a few of Running Man’s flaws in the past, from the show’s occasional over-reliance of guests to its moments of blatant scripting. Today, however, I want to focus on a particular problem that’s been evidently plaguing the program in its recent days: predictability.
When Running Man first premiered, it was introduced as a completely new form of variety, calling itself an “urban action variety.” At the time, most variety shows were either talk-centered (talk shows like Strong Heart or even varieties like Family Outing or 1N2D which focused primarily in cast interaction) or game centered (Dream Team and to a lesser degree, X-Man).
Running Man was an interesting mix of both; it offered a fixed cast completing very high-concept and ever-changing races performed in a new landmark every week. The show sought to do the unexpected, implementing new missions or tasks that aimed to thrill or intrigue. So if Running Man started out priding itself in its experimental and unexpected nature, how could predictability be a problem in recent episodes?
As said, previously, Running Man enjoyed experimenting with its missions and cast, implementing new tasks and pairings every so often to varying degrees of success. Now over three years since the show’s premier, it’s pretty clear that the producers and cast have realized which pairings or characters are popular with fans or which missions are met with positive feedback.
This predictability is a result of Running Man going by what worked in the past. They’re sticking to their guns and going with what proved to be successful before, something you really can’t blame the program for. But as a result of only going with the successful, the show has become fairly formulaic.
The cast and producers have slowed their experimentation process considerably, sticking to the same characters and missions every week. While the basic concept or surroundings of every episode changes every week, there are certain running gags you can expect to happen in almost every episode. These gags have consequently lost their original entertainment value, becoming tiring, overused, and most of all, predictable.
The most notable aspect of Running Man’s predictability is the stagnation of growth in the cast’s characters — their on-screen variety personas. Over the course of the show, each member accumulated titles correlating to a trait of theirs and grew into a role that they continued to play for each episode.
For example, Ji Suk-jin was the “race starter” for he was the weakest link and would consequently oftentimes be eliminated first. Likewise, Song Ji-hyo was called the Ace, for her multiple victories on the show made her an invaluable member of the team. For a while these characters worked wonderfully; individually, they were the source of a lot of the show’s funniest moments and collectively, they were able to embody Running Man‘s biggest assets: its cast.
For a while, these characters continued to grow even after being established, for new happenings would add another element to the casts’ personas. For example, Lee Kwang-soo was originally only known to be timid and quiet at the show’s commencement but slowly became the show’s resident traitor as betrayal became all the more prominent in the show. However, in recent episodes, this growth seemed either slow down momentously or stop all together.
In recent episodes, the members’ personas have remained the same, and while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does make the show much more predictable. The cast is doing the same thing each and every week, calling on the same running gags or characters over and over again. And while these things are what made Running Man so enjoyable before, because they are used so much, they have lose their appeal, becoming tiring and foreseeable. It’s like you can have a checklist of all of Running Man‘s running gags and have the majority list be filled out consistently going through the episodes.
It’s even worse in terms of the games, because it takes the thrill out of the competition. You can almost always expect for Commander Kim Jong-kook and Ace Ji-hyo to perform well every time, for Ji Suk-jin to be the first to be out, or for Lee Kwang-soo to make one of his signature betrayals in each and every episode. And when you can continuously predict the outcome of each game only a few minutes in, why bother to continue watching?
This is why Running Man differs from other variety shows, and why predictability is such a dire issue for the show. One could argue that other variety shows are also predictable, for they also rely on continuous running gags and characters as centerpieces for their programs. However, predictability hinders Running Man especially, because this predictability has seeped into the competition aspect of the show as well, hindering one of the show’s major draws.
The same can be said for the cast interaction. As the show went on, little relationships and partnerships were formed among the cast. These relationships varied from being endearing to amusing, but even these adorable pairings are starting to become overused and boring. In each episode, you can expect things like Lee Kwang-soo going out of his way to mess with Kim Jong-kook or Yoo Jae-suk childishly bickering with HaHa, for those relationships are ones that the show itself established and — unfortunately — overuses to no end.
And being blunt here, exactly why did the Monday Couple — another established relationship within the show, this time being a love line between Kang Gary and Song Ji-hyo — reemerge? Don’t get me wrong; I absolutely adored the couple, and their recent moments had my heart flying in joy. But the pairing was already given their closure after Song Ji-hyo was confirmed to be in a relationship and was only mentioned in jest in the early episodes following their “break-up.”
So if that’s the case, why is the much beloved loveline taking such prominence in the show again? The duo are being paired just like before, being thrusted into couple missions and romantic situations during missions. While a fan can only dream the loveline resurfaced naturally, it’s more likely that the couple was brought back either because of overwhelming fan request or because the producers of the show had no idea how to advance Ji-hyo and Gary’s characters.
Furthermore, what used to be surprising turned more into a norm. This is best demonstrated through the spy concept the show frequently uses. When first introduced in the show’s first “Yoomes Bond” episode, the idea was novel, and the betrayal was actually surprising. However, after that point, a good portion of the show’s episodes have utilized a spy or at least some other third party rallying against the cast in secret. Consequently, these little twists aren’t really as surprising or thrilling anymore, and the cast is always suspicious of each other.
This actually cost the show a lot during the recent Avengers special, for the cast was gathered to work together to eliminate the super guests but instead turned on each other due to their wariness in compromising. Add to that reoccurring games that are repetitive and lacking in suspense (such as the Ultimate Ddakji series or the many couple races), and you have Running Man‘s core problems at the moment.
Running Man‘s predictability is why guests can often make or break the episode. An effective guest can surprise viewers and change the dynamics in the cast. In turn, a more passive guest would leave little impact, forcing the show to compensate.
So what exactly could the show do to change and fix its problems? Well, making changes warrants another problem in itself, for the same predictable running gags that are in need of change are what longtime fans have come to demand and expect from the show. Like in any other variety, these running gags or reoccurring elements have become the some of the show’s main draws and trademarks. If the show were to carelessly make changes to these gags, they risk an identity crisis and the loss of fans. Consequently, the cast and crew have to be a little more wary when implementing changes.
Nevertheless, there are some definite elements that need to be fixed regardless of risk. The main cause of the show’s recent predictability is an overuse of its running gags. A simple way to remedy that is to just stop using them so often; after all, everything is better in moderation. If the cast was to stop relying in the same gags over and over again for easy comedy, that would leave much more room for improvements and growth that the show desperately needs.
First of all, it would lead the cast to have to improvise more rather than just rely on their characters. This, in turn, could even lead to evolution of the cast’s original characters, something no cast member should be exempted from. New aspects should be regularly introduced to each of the cast’s current characters to fuel this evolution, thereby adding depth and keeping the characters from being predictable once again. And considering how all have become stellar entertainers by their own merits, I have full faith they will still be capable in carrying the show.
To give an example of a potential character enhancement, there’s Kim Jong-kook recently earned nickname “Kim Leave-It,” gained during Park Ji-sung’s second appearance. Jong-kook was given the title after showing a surprisingly clumsy and incompetent side in soccer. If the show were to expand on this character, it could add some depth and contrast to Kim Jong-kook’s original and usually unbeatable Commander character.
The same can be said for the repetitive cast interaction as well. The cast is always paired up in the same way when building teams, and while I understand it’s a way to even the playing field or accommodate guests, it’s become tiring nonetheless. Truthfully, it’s the less pronounced relationships that endear me the most to the show nowadays rather than the more acknowledged ones that have been repeated over and over again.
For example, while I still have infinite love for the Monday Couple, Ji-hyo’s interaction with the other men of the show can be just as amusing even if they are less prominent to the show’s makeup. Her noona/dongsaeng relationship with Kwang-soo is so endearing; her bickering and sibling-like relationship with HaHa amuses me to no end; and SpartAce, frankly, is the bomb. However, none of these relations are ever given much notice due to the Monday Couple’s overwhelming presence on the show.
Additionally, a simpler, more straightforward formatting could be implemented. While the show attempts to leave viewers surprised by adding multiple twists and complexities to the show’s races, the way these twists are currently being executed feels very manufactured and overly planned. These twists can oftentimes also be very one-sided, giving a player unfair advantages that take from the suspense of the game.
Moreover, as said previously, these so-called twists occur way too frequently that they stop being surprising and start becoming the norm. This leads many viewers to expect what’s coming, adding to the predictability of the show.
If the show were to employ simpler, more open-ended tasks, this would open up much more variables and opportunities for the cast to make a turnaround, therefore adding more potential for surprises. This is why earlier missions such as Bells Hide and Seek were so thrilling and well received. For the most part, the cast was left to their own devices, evening up the playing field and leaving victory open-ended until the end.
Admittedly, Bells Hide and Seek also got predictable towards the end because of the Chasing Team’s usual victory due to Kim Jong-kook’s clear advantage in strength. However, now the cast is more evenly matched after their time together. With a few tweaks, games in similar vein could also do wonders for the show.
In conclusion though, while the show has become fairly predictable at times, Running Man is still undoubtedly my favorite variety show. The show is still amusing and entertaining despite all its faults, and I’m only critiquing it because I care for it so much. While moments that leave me reeling from awe have admittedly become far less frequent, the show still manages to surprise me, providing me with some unforgettable moments of entertainment.
Moreover, I’m not that worried over cancellation. Running Man, despite its decline in ratings, is still a very esteemed program with a very prominent fanbase. Also, as PD Jo Hyu-jin mentioned in a recent interview, ratings also tend to fluctuate, meaning there’s still a pretty good chance Running Man will regain its lost viewership. Lastly, I’d like to point out that when Running Man was reaching a low point all those years ago, the PD’s in charge enacted major changes in the format of the show, changes that lead to the Running Man we all watch now. Seeing as the show is seemingly reaching that low point once again, I have full faith that the producers will be able to pull it off again and make the necessary changes to get the show back to its former glory.
Readers, what are your thoughts? Is Running Man getting predictable to you too?
(Nate , ABG Nielsen, SBS, Images via Runmanclub)