With a final gut-wrenching, stressful and extremely long (4 hrs!) episode, the fourth season of Produce came to an end, and X1 was born. The last stretch of the show was an eventful ride, complete with funny variety show-style games (some, with ridiculous editing) to the final elimination and debut. The rankings, which until then had been reasonably steady, were rocked considerably when the voting pattern changed from voting for 11 favorites, to a ‘two-pick’, and finally, ‘one-pick’ and live voting.

Episode 11 saw the surprise elimination of fan-favorite Lee Jin-woo (Maroo Entertainment), and the unexpected rise of Keum Dong-hyun (C9 Entertainment) into the debut cut-off line. Pursuant to the eliminations, the trainees appeared to be unusually low on energy while selection their positions in the two Debut Evaluation songs — though they did become increasingly lively as the selection progressed.

The dull(-er) appearance of the trainees may have been a natural consequence of the greatly reduced numbers, but the set contributed to the atmosphere. While most such scenes have been filmed in large, brightly-lit halls, this selection was filmed in a small, relatively dim room. Either way, it is understandable that the trainees would be tired, nervous and tense this close to the final episode.

Going into Ep. 12, perhaps the only “locks” for debut were Kim Yo-han (OUI Entertainment) and Up10tion‘s Kim Woo-seok (TOP Media), with Song Hyeong-jun (Starship Entertainment) trailing not too far behind. All three ranked consistently amongst the top 10 throughout the season, and predictably opened the rankings at the start of Ep. 12 at the top 3 spots. To the surprise of absolutely no one, the finale came down to Yo-han and Woo-seok for the win, with Yo-han taking the crown.

If producer bias and Mnet‘s liberal editing influenced who made it to the finale; what, ultimately, made the difference between those who debuted, and those who did not?

In a survival show, the impact a contestant makes ultimately helps him debut. Timing is crucial. Stand out too early, and you need to keep proving yourself throughout the show (e.g. Yo-han and Hyeong-jun), but stand out too late, and you might be eliminated regardless (e.g. Won Hyuk (E Entertainment)). This is most evident from the contrasting cases of previously debuted trainees, Myteen‘s Song Yu-vin (The Music Works) and Victon‘s Han Seung-woo (Plan A Entertainment).

Yu-vin stood out as a formidable vocal early in the series and ranked #8 in Ep. 5. However, as Yu-vin did not showcase anything new in later episodes, he was slowly replaced as a contender for “main vocal” by Seung-woo. Seung-woo was ranked #30 in Ep. 5 but stood out in the Position and Concept Evaluations as a formidable vocal in his own right. This, combined with regular comments by trainees about his leadership skills and the unfortunate withdrawal of band-mate Choi Byung-chan, propelled Seung-woo to Rank #3 when the final group was announced. Yu-vin, on the other hand, failed to make the cut.

The debut of Cho Seung-yeon (Yuehua Entertainment) reiterates the same lesson. Ranked #67 in Ep. 1, and not given any push by Mnet in early episodes, it did not seem likely that the ’96 liner would debut. As the contract for X1 is to run for five years, it stands to reason that Mnet wanted a younger crop of trainees for the debut group. Yet, Seung-yeon made it.

In hindsight, it makes sense. Seung-yeon’s rank rose consistently throughout the show, as he showcased a variety of different skills: a vocalist in “Love Shot”, a skilled rapper in “Yes or No” and “Move”, an able dancer throughout, and the maniac, energetic mood-maker. Formerly of UNIQ, Seung-yeon also goes by the name “Woodz” and has released music, some of it self-composed. Versatile and experienced, Seung-yeon stood out — in much the same way as Seung-woo, a ’94 liner, did.

Another contrast is offered by the case of Kim Min-gyu (Jellyfish Entertainment). Min-gyu ranked high early in the season for his visuals and prince-like aura and was heavily pushed by Mnet’s angel edit. However, as the show progressed it became clear that Min-gyu, with only a few months of prior training, was not yet ready to take the stage. Despite his rank being volatile between the ranking announcements, Min-gyu opened Episode 12 at #4, well within the debut cut-off. Yet Min-gyu did not make it.

In the end, he may have lost out on votes as Ep. 12 aired, due to his performance in “To My World”. In contrast to the trainees around him, Min-gyu was noticeably stiff on stage. Even at the late stage, it was clear he was not ready for the rigorous choreography that will be expected from the members of X1, once the group debuts. In short, a dramatic improvement in his dancing could have made a difference for Min-gyu on that crucial, final stage, but alas, despite his best efforts, it remained a missed opportunity.

Song Yu-vin was unlucky in other ways as well. His case demonstrates yet another factor — arguably the most significant one — that influenced who finally debuted at the end of Ep. 12: the rankings revealed multiple times during the episode. Of the rankings revealed at the very start of Ep. 12, ranks 11 to 12 included five of eleven trainees that made the cut: Han Seung-woo at #11, Cha Jun-ho (Woolim Entertainment) at #12, Lee Han-gyul (MBK Entertainment) at #14, Cho Seung-yeon at #15 and Kang Min-hee (Starship) at a distant #19.

By Ep. 12, regular viewers would have been familiar with the trainees, their personalities and skills, and have had their biases in place; and one would not expect such a drastic switch in the debut line-up — yet, it happened. It appears that lower rankings (“danger” ranks), presented in a dramatized manner, do indeed attract viewers’ sympathies, and their votes.

Yu-vin had a moment to shine as the center of “Boy”, but it was short-lived, as Lee Dong-wook announced the four trainees at the “danger” line, i.e. ranked between #9 to #12, one hour into the finale: Nam Do-hyun (MBK), Son Dong-pyo (DSP Media), Keum Dong-hyun and Lee Han-gyul. The camera took a full three minutes to reveal who the trainees were, heightening tension. Eventually, three of these four trainees made it. The cumulative effect of the reveal of rankings was to edge out Song Yu-vin, who was not given the same fanfare though ranked precariously at #10 when the episode opened.

However, the theory of impact and timing presented above is incomplete. With many other trainees, it is hard to determine what worked in someone’s favor and what failed in another’s. For instance, the center of “To My World”, Hwang Yun-seong (Woolim) opened the episode at Rank #16, and ended it at #18, thereby failing to debut with X1. Interestingly, Yun-seong, highlighted as a phenomenal dancer in the latter half of the show, was the trainees’ “one-pick” in Ep. 11 i.e. the one trainee other trainees considered perfect for the role of the center of the debut group.

On the other hand, Kang Min-hee, though ranking #11 in Ep. 1, fell to the 20s in the middle of the show as he was obscured by other, more popular trainees. In the latter half, the show began to emphasize his vocal abilities in much the same way it highlighted Yun-seong’s dancing, yet while Min-hee made it (despite opening Ep. 12 at #19), Yun-seong did not. Here, the question of who debuts may have boiled down to that un-quantifiable “X” factor — the ability to connect with viewers through a TV screen, and draw in fans.

The big surprise of the night was how the actual “X” of Produce X 101 played out. It was hoped that with the selection of the “X” member a “Jong-hyun” (NUEST‘s JR) situation from season 2 could be prevented, but the X broke hearts anyway. It was Up10tion’s Lee Jin-hyuk (TOP Media) and not Lee Eun-sang (Brand New Music), who was ranked #11 that night, and would have debuted were it not for the “X”. Jin-hyuk gained substantial popularity following the Position Evaluation, where he took a risk by choosing the “X” category, hard carried his inexperienced team and won the whole round. Jin-hyuk’s leadership skills, rap, height and variety sense all earned him a substantial boost in later episodes, or so it seemed.

Perhaps the numbers were misleading. It may have been that his high rank in Ep. 11’s ranking announcement was due to his strong two-pick with his more popular band-mate Woo-seok. As stated while selecting the center for “Boy”, Jin-hyuk himself worried about coming across as being too fierce. Or perhaps none of this matters, as Mnet may have wanted to restrict the number of already debuted members, particularly from the same group.

This brings us to the speculations of vote-rigging that have plagued the show since it ended. Mnet has reportedly requested the police to conduct an investigation. In the meantime, agencies of the 20 finalists have agreed to support the debut group in its present composition. The move to hand over the investigation to an external agency is a smart one. An internal investigation will always be suspected of bias, whereas if the police find nothing amiss, Mnet will be able to silence all doubts in a single stroke.

Thus, the final line-up is, well, final. Lee Dae-hwi‘s song “Dream For You” added a nice sentimental touch before the final rankings were aired, and Lee Dong-wook’s commentary soothed the hurt of watching one’s favorite trainees not make it. Designating a national producers’ representative of the same gender as the trainees, was a stroke of genius on part of Mnet. Without any possibility of unseemly rumors if the host seemed too close to the trainees, Lee Dong-wook was able to show warmer interactions with contestants than hosts from previous seasons.

It is difficult to say what the concept of the debut group will be. The final members are widely spread out in age (a ’94 liner to a ’04 liner), experience and style. The group will be managed by Swing Entertainment which unfortunately, has a bad track record with Wanna One. Here’s to hoping that Swing are better equipped now to handle the group, and wishing X1, as well as all the trainees that didn’t make it, the very best!

(Naver [1], [2], [3], YouTube, Images via Mnet)