The Masked Singer [Image: Fox]

Crowd Goes Wild Over US Adaptation of South Korean Reality Television


Who could be behind the mask? Fox premiered a new singing competition series named ‘The Masked Singer’ on January 2 in which celebrities wearing elaborate costume disguises compete against one another on prime time national television. The distinguishing feature of this television show is that the audience is unaware of the true identities of the contestants. Viewers are left to wonder which masked celebrity will be unveiled next. The Nielson Company recorded over nine million people that tuned in to watch the series premier. That makes this the highest rated unscripted series debut in more than seven years.

The series is based on a South Korean television show called ‘The King of Masked Singer’ produced by Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC). The original South Korean show, first aired in 2015, has not only been a domestic success, but also a hit among international audiences. Before selling the concept rights to the United States, MBC sold the series format rights to seven other foreign broadcasters in countries such as China, India, and Italy.

Worldwide demand for South Korean television content is increasing at an accelerated pace. The Masked Singer is not the first US adaptation of a South Korean television show. For instance, NBC aired a series named ‘Better Late than Never’, an adaptation of South Korea’s ‘Grandpa’s Over Flowers’ series in which old men in their twilight years backpack around the world.

‘The Masked Singer’ is opening the door for a new category of South Korean entertainment: reality TV. In the international cultural space, South Korea is best known for its perfectly choreographed K-pop acts along with its intense and melodramatic television dramas. Now, South Korea is making headway towards becoming a global leader in reality TV. Along with K-pop and K-drama, South Korean reality TV shows have shown promise in the United States.

Fox recently said that the public response to the ‘The Masked Singer’ series debut was largely positive and announced that it will renew the series for a second season. According to data from the Korea Creative Content Agency, the proportion of South Korea’s broadcast contents format export steadily increased from 14% in 2014 to 16% in 2016. Especially, the export on concept rights jumped from $1.3 million in 2012 to $54 million in 2016, and the number of importers of South Korean content grew from eight to fifteen within the same timeframe.

There are nearly two million Koreans Americans living in the United States. The ethnic Korean subpopulation is the 5th largest Asian group in the country, and its community in large part carried the international fervor for Hallyu, or Korean Wave, within the United States. Impact of South Korea-based media contents has spurred new and lasting cross-border relationships, and it will continue to enhance the mutual respect between audiences from Asia to the United States.

Seol Hong is an ASAN Academy Fellow and a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a graduate of Korea National University of Arts concentrating in Musicology and minoring in Arts Management.

Brian Kim is participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He holds a master's degree in Korean Language and Asian Studies from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa.