With survival shows, PDs have been known to select their favorites, ostensibly to make for more compelling TV. Mnet’s Produce series is particularly infamous for this. The show is based on the premise that eleven contestants with the greatest number of fan votes will debut in the final group. However, the show can manipulate viewer preferences by giving longer screen-times to certain trainees while ignoring others, or by framing some in a favorable light and others, in a negative one.

In the lead up to Produce X 101, PD Ahn Joon-young was forced to address concerns about producer bias. He assured the public that this latest season, complete with an episode length of over 120 mins, would showcase trainees as fairly as possible. Sadly, Produce X 101 has now been exposed for not just favoritism, but possible criminal rigging of votes. 

Soon after the season concluded its run, eagle-eyed viewers identified numerous red flags. First, the final vote round-up showed a pattern so improbable that it was impossible to dismiss — every contestant’s (all 20 of them, with the exception of Koo Jung-mo from Starship Entertainment) final vote was a multiple of 7,494.422. For instance, Kim Yo-han’s 1,334,011 votes was simply a product of 7,494.422 and 178. For Kim Woo-seok, the multiplier was 174.  

With that being Mnet’s first magic number, their second reference was 29,978. The difference between the final votes was exactly 29,978 in up to five separate instances: before ranks #2, #4, #7, #8, and #11. In other words, the difference between 1st and 2nd place (Kim Yohan versus Kim Wooseok) turned out to be 29,978. Similarly, the numbers 7494, 7495, and 104922 119922 appeared twice.

Lastly, Tony’s final vote count appears to have been used as a “foundation” to determine the number of votes the higher ranks earned. Tony’s 284,789 votes (#20) when added to Lee Se-jin’s 464,655 votes (#18) equal Kang Min-hee’s 749,444 votes (#10). Likewise, Tony’s votes plus Kim Min-gyu’s 472,150 votes (#17) equal Cha Jun-ho’s 756,939 votes (#9); and so on.

In order to prove the diversity that comes from fan votes, Mnet seems to have resorted to lazy math. Mnet tried to explain away the irregularities, initially expressing surprise at these events that did “not” come from manipulation. It also attempted to hide the data, for the sake of “protecting” their new Produce group X1. But as the outcry grew louder, and both domestic and global CF deals fell through, the channel took an unusual step. Rather than going on the defensive, it invited the police to look into the irregularities. 

This invitation has blown open a Pandora’s Box. The police have now announced that they have obtained definite evidence of vote manipulation, even of two to three trainees being switched out of X1. Earlier Produce seasons and even Idol School are also under scrutiny. More updates include a possible change in the rankings, as well as an obtained phone recording of Mnet production staff discussing vote manipulation in current and past seasons. These two evidences have come about from police raiding the CJ E&M‘s (Mnet’s parent company) office and the production staff’s phones. As a result, the head PD and staff have been booked based on charges of obstruction of business.

X1 fans are understandably upset, as the group’s future is now uncertain. What Mnet appears to have committed through the combination of fan-paid votes and manipulation is — fraud. The show secured paid votes on the false promise that those votes alone would determine who made it to the debut. If it is decisively concluded that the group has been brought together by fraud, X1 may lose the trademark to their name, leading to the cancellation of the group’s contract with Mnet. Altogether, this means the group will not be able to debut as the product of an Mnet show. The PD and Mnet can be charged with fraud as well.

Police have also conducted search and seizure of the agencies of selected trainees on October 1 — such as Woollim Entertainment (Cha Jun-ho), Starship (Song Hyung-jun, Kang Min-hee) and MBK (Lee Han-gyul, Nam Do-hyun) — for evidence of back-room deals with the agencies.

A common argument raised by the fandom is that no matter what the outcome of the investigation, the members of X1 are innocent, and ought not to suffer for Mnet’s greed. However, there is no reason to conclude the trainees were/were not aware of the predetermined outcomes. In fact, according to recent revelations by former participants, some trainees knew songs to be performed in advance and were able to practice longer, or were filmed extensively, while others were not. 

Looking back at the show however, it gets confusing. For instance, Cho Seung-yeon and Cha Jun-ho got little to no screentime in early episodes, but made it in anyway. On the other hand, Kim Min-gyu was given extensive screen time and coveted angel edit, but was ultimately left out. 

At the same time, it is hard to believe Lee Jin-hyuk did not receive the votes needed to make the group. Fans have also questioned whether Choi Byung-chan’s abrupt departure from the final round, supposedly due to health issues, was motivated by “other” reasons. Byung-chan and X1 leader Han Seung-woo both hail from boy group Victon, and were strong contenders for the final line-up. If Byung-chan had not pulled out, perhaps both of them would have made it. 

Was there a change in the “PD picks”? Did fan votes influence who made it versus who didn’t? At what point did the rigging start — was even the selection of Son Dong-pyo as Center of “X1-MA”, even before the show aired, a pre-determined outcome? The oddities certainly raise questions about the fairness and integrity of the show and there is no precedent for what happens next.

In light of this situation, the role of the fandom becomes crucial. What part can fans play as those who financially and emotionally invested into the participants? On one hand, as can been seem from sales of X1’s debut mini album, Emergency: Quantum Leap, fans have kept their loyalty and can keep the group going in place of reluctant advertisers. If X1 can emerge from this situation relatively unscathed, they do have a fandom waiting to support them. But should the legal contract be cancelled, fans as the outliers can only do so much to support each individual trainee.

And here is where fans show split reactions. Some have expressed that above all legal investigations, the group must stay alive and promoting. However, others believe that because X1 is unfortunately the product of Mnet’s manipulative schemes, the contract should be cancelled. Meaning, the price should be paid. Yes, some may chalk this up to the “blame game” when it is indeed clear that Mnet (and perhaps corresponding agencies) are in the wrong. But things have come to a point where fans must choose between an illusion or the reality of Mnet’s legal repercussions. Can fans truly support X1, while also recognizing that X1’s future depends on the law?

So far, Mnet appears to have cooperated with the investigation, seemingly eager to weed out irregularities. Does this mean the channel is innocent? Or was the channel confident the police would find no trace of illegal activity when it requested the investigation? Or perhaps, is the channel distancing itself from the illegalities, and pining the blame on a select few “corrupt” individuals in the production team. If so, the invitation was a sound legal move, if the illegalities are so obvious that they cannot be denied.  

Of course, to a certain degree, intertwining privilege with skill is a true and tried form of “survival entertainment.” It’s not only a surefire way to grab anyone’s long-term attention, but a more specific means for the audience to better determine who should qualify. For example, on JYPE’s survival show Sixteen, the trainees competing for a spot in Twice were split into lower or higher levels that determines everything from transportation to practice hours. Those who JYP ranked higher were allowed to practice during the daytime, enjoyed a “celebrity van,” and had a refrigerator full of healthy salads. Meanwhile, the “lower” trainees could only use the studio at night, used a regular minivan, and had a tight, small dorm room.

Naturally, this division would not only incur greater motivation on the trainees’ part, but also spur support from the viewers. And, if balanced and executed properly, it could enable the audience’s input to match the PD’s own agenda. Should this formula work successfully, then it’d be a win-win situation for both the broadcasters and the new fans who are eager to support what is now Twice.

However, Sixteen did not mislead viewers into thinking their votes were all that mattered in the creation of the final group. Even YG, now notorious for its illegal activities, informed audiences from the very start that fan votes would only matter so much in the selection of the final group in YG Treasure Box. It’s clear that Mnet had other priorities — whether the need to tell a better story or keep their end of the (backroom) deal with a few participating agencies. 

In conclusion, from a fan’s perspective, Mnet proved itself to be inhumane as it manipulated — and compromised — young trainees’ dreams for its own profits. It goes beyond simple ‘favoritism’ to have certain trainees start way ahead than other trainees, in order to fulfill the show’s agenda. Prioritizing screen-time is unfortunately a cemented method, but Mnet has clearly executed the show in an unethical and possibly illegal manner. It also appears that CJ E&M, Mnet’s parent company, has kept most of those profits for itself.

Thus, Mnet’s real agenda was ironically the opposite of what the program stood for in its entirety. Why even cast such a huge scale for such slim, pre-selected opportunities? Why commit fraud for the sake of upholding the illusion of public choice? If Mnet was going to bend over backwards for this season of Produce, then it may have been better to simply launch a new survival show. Perhaps this was the channel’s way of maintaining the successful brand of Produce — consistently pushing the boundaries until they no longer could. The numbers don’t lie, and hopefully the whole truth emerges sooner than later. After all their hard work, X1, other trainees on the show, fans, and anyone who paid to vote, deserve it.

This article has been written by Rimi and Gina.

(DC Inside, DongA News, Gaon, JoongAng Ilbo, MBC [1] [2], Naver [1] [2] [3], Newsen, No Cut News, Reddit [1] [2], Sports Chosun, Sports Today [1] [2], X Sports News, YouTube [1] [2]; Images via JYPE, Mnet, YG Entertainment, YTN)