South Korea used to be a rural country but it rapidly changed in a recent half of a century. The change is seen in entertainment and commercial products as well. Whereas in the cultural sense South Korea used to rely on Japan, it became strong enough since the 1990s in terms of cultural product, and the Korean Wave started. Named K-drama and K-pop, Korean television and pop music began its expansion to the West. Korean TV shows are also rather popular among Western audiences. Shot in urban environment, both Korean Running Man and Infinite Challenge use elements of pop culture and humor to win over domestic and overseas audiences. The key to the shows’ popularity is a charismatic cast, popular guests, and great humor. However, Running Man is a show that could become popular outside Korea, while Infinite Challenge appeals mostly to the domestic market.
After its swift change into an urban country, South Korea is now able to offer a lot in terms of cultural products. Korean pop music and Korean drama are very popular domestically and abroad. It means that South Korea has already fit into the world community with its trends to globalization and modernization. It used to be the role of Japan to provide the Asian countries with its cultural products. However, modern South Korea is able to provide such products for itself and its neighbors as well. Moreover, Japan also buys Korean cultural products and adopts the best examples of it. For example, Korean TV variety show Running Man has its variants both in China and in Japan and is even coming into the USA.
Korean cultural products fit nicely into the general trend for globalization because business show makers understood and managed to use “the appropriation of local culture” (Lin & Tong 92). In their article “The Korean Wave: Rising Transnational Popularity of Korean TV Dramas in East/Southeast Asian Societies,” Angel Lin and Avin Tong explain that globalization is a two-sided process, which means that not only global production covers local needs but also some local elements can gain global attention. For example, for Asian cultural products to become popular, it is necessary to show urban settings, youth population, stylishly dressed people, and glamorous lifestyles.
South Korea began its modernization quite late. Known primarily as a rural country, Korea started to modernize its TV production in the 1960s. It gave its fruit by the late 1970s when Koreans began watching their own domestic TV shows and dramas. When Korean television produced “trendy drama” in the 1990s, it was the beginning of the Korean Wave that swept all over Asia. Also named Hallyu, it made people interested with the representation of pop culture, handsome actors, and beautiful scenery and settings. From now on, Korean pop cultural products have combined cosmopolitan elements and traditional Asian values. Whereas by that time Korea was largely christianized, many people still adhered to traditional Confucian values, all the more that religious values often coincide in many cultures. People still want to see filial piety, friendship, respect, and other moral values reflected in cultural products (Lin & Tong 92).
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These both TV shows under examination have elements of cosmopolitan and traditional Asian values. The first is the one of the oldest TV shows on Korean TV and is called Infinite Challenge. It was first released in 2005, and it has five hundred episodes as of now. Infinite Challenge is a variety show that consists of different acts such as musical, comedy, quiz, sports competition, etc. and is broadcasted by a host. In Korea, Infinite Challenge has been enormously popular throughout all these years. The show has a number of members who are given different tasks by the host; and when they perform them, the viewer hears their dialogues and quarrelling, which is fun. The major difference of Infinite Challenge from other reality TV shows is that it is mostly unscripted. The show members and invited guest have freedom to act as they want, and it adds the fun in the end (Seoulbeats).
Infinite Challenge does not have a constant location. The show keeps changing settings and challenges for the members. There were Radio Star episodes, Song Festival episodes, time-travel tours, treasure hunter episodes, and hidden camera segments. One of the great advantages of Infinite Challenge is that its makers try to make the show as variable as possible. For this purpose, they made their episodes as reactions to important events. For example, there was Cheerleading Squad Pre-Brazil Special before football Championship in Brazil. As a reaction to unusually hot summer, the team made IC Heat Wave Era special.
Seeing its high popularity, the program makers often turn to important topics and try to do some good for the public with their high ratings. For example, the TV Lecture Idol Special was focused on Korean history, and the show members had to prepare lectures and show that education can be fun. One of the recent episodes sent the IC members ‘back to school.’ The cast was filmed by a hidden camera when they were having dinner at the restaurant. After it, the language police incriminated them “crimes against the Korean language” (Wan).
Another example of how the show uses its popularity for solving social issues was an episode about difficulties to find well-paid job and afford higher education. It is a big problem for Korea that tuition fees are too high, and many students are not able to afford college education. Therefore, the members of the show tried to highlight the problem by doing it in a funny way so people would not be bored and would recognize the key issue (Seoulbeats). Modernization and globalization took people away from villages and rural way of life, so Infinite Challenge reminds its viewers of how their country looked like in the past in Korea Tour episodes. The members of the show together with a group of guests take a trip to some regions of the country and point at interesting details such as scenery, the seasonal change of color, elements of everyday life, etc. In time machine episodes, the host Yoo Jae-suk explains types of clothes, customs, and rituals in ancient Korea as they move between different time periods.
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Another very popular TV show in Korea is Running Man. Started in 2010, the show has had 290 episodes and managed to become popular overseas as well. Running Man also has a stable cast with Yoo Jae-suk being a member of it. The members are given silly tasks to perform against the backdrop of Korean urban settings. The episodes are shot outside on the streets of megalopolises or inside large offices and other urban buildings such as shopping malls, museums, art centers, hospitals, etc. Mostly, Running Man is made as a competition, but its major aim is to entertain. Thus, it is fun for RM fans to watch their favorite show members running around and joking with each other. The cast is made of relatively famous stars who joined the show just for fan. Yoo Jae-suk and Ji Suk-jin are hosts in many TV programs; Haha is a comic and entertainer; Kim Jong-kook is a pop singer; Kang Gary is a rap singer; and Song Ji-hyo and Lee Kwang-soo are actors (CRM).
In the beginning, the show had a real mission and a fake mission given to the members. For example, they were given the task to stamp quickly some object or to pass a spelling test, but in fact, their mission was to fool one of the members or copy him/her. In the early episodes, the members had to take part in a race mission and additional task along the way. Later, they made it a long mission that finishes at the end of the episode. The producers of the show always try to come up with new, unexpected tasks in order to make the show more exciting. For this purpose, they watch the ratings.
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Even though sometimes Running Man seems unscripted, there is still some structure. The cast members have a relative freedom in performing tasks the way they desire. However, the Humans vs. Zombies episode is very structured, and the members arrive to an island not knowing what they are going to do there. The cast is usually joined by famous guests. One of the most famous quest was Jackie Chan (CRM). While Infinite Challenge seems to be more focused on themes, Running Man also has occasional theme-driven episodes. For example, when they invited Park Ji-sung who plays for Manchester United, the episode had football theme. However, on the whole, Running Man is more oriented to win the prize at the end rather than to have a uniting theme.
Both Korean TV shows share a number of characteristics. The age of modern technology influenced television as well. In his article “Kind Participation: Postmodern Consumption and Capital with Japan’s Telop TV,” Aaron Gerow writes about the new aesthetics of entertainment brought by telops. Telop is a technical term which is a shortening for “television opaque projector” (Gerow 118). Telops can be images or words that appear on the screen “superimposed on the main image” and differ from subtitles (Gerow 118). They are usually bigger in size and of different, often funny shape, and they frequently simply reshape or repeat what was already said by the participants of the program. For foreigners who watch the program, subtitled telops interfere and come into way of reading subtitles.
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Gerow writes that telops originated long ago and are used in various programs. However, in the similar way to “the computer dominating the workplace with its rapid overflow of layered information”, telops began dominating TV shows while “generating a new aesthetics of dense information in the arts” (Gerow 133). The fact that Korean television uses telops so much shows that it was influenced by Japan. Gerow points out that telops were first used in Japanese television, and they originated from Japanese manga (133). In manga, characters’ words sometimes are shown in speech bubbles.
Both Infinite Challenge and Running Man have a similar way of placing telops sparingly. There is usually the show’s title in the left upper corner, a string of words to name the places they visit, and some referential information. However, Running Man almost constantly has someone’s words in speech bubbles or some phrases to show the cast’s mood. For example, when the RM team was in Dubai, it said they were lost for words. Sometimes, the programs have the name of the section on a screen. It is done for those viewers who like switching channels to orient them and explain what part of the show is on air. Also, telops often prepare the viewer that something is about to happen. Gerow says that “telops, therefore, do not just exist synchronously with the dialogue but operate diachronically to facilitate the construction and pursuit of the narrative” (119).
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Another thing that unites both shows is the fact that they express emotional attachments among the members. Many viewers notice that Korean shows rely less on competitiveness and more on having fun and remaining friends. Both the cast of Infinite Challenge and Running Man have been on the show since its launch. They say that they are now like family. Yoo Jae Suk says that he is more relaxed on Infinite Challenge, and it is considered by him as a home and family (Seoulbeats). The cast members of Running Man also say that they developed chemistry among each other, and the viewership believe that they are friends in real life as well (CRM).
Such good relations among the show members is shown in the general atmosphere of both shows. Critics and fans notice that, unlike many American TV shows, Running Man is not obsessed with the prize: “The running debate is that this impulse stems either from the American character, human nature generally, or a producer's conception of both” (CRM). Meanwhile, both Infinite Challenge and Running Man can be characterized by “a reasonably healthy attitude” towards winning. The members have a lot of joy from communicating with each other. Obviously, the chemistry between members and their interactions are the major attraction for the viewership. The fans love the shows for the cast and how funny they are on screen because of silly tasks and repetitive actions.
It can also be said that both Infinite Challenge and Running Man combine traditionalism and modernity. Taking traditional games such as treasure hunt, hide-and-seek, and nametags, the Korean TV shows place them in modern context of urban location and consumerist lifestyles (Lin & Tong 100). The shows change their locales constantly. When filming outside, cameramen capture beautiful scenery. It gives a lasting effect together with music and is very pleasant to watch. Both shows have their episodes filmed abroad or traveled a lot over the world. For example, Running Man went once to Dubai, and Infinite Challenge went to Bangkok in one of the recent episodes. Thus, the audience is treated with unusual vistas and beautiful scenery.
Inasmuch as the cast of both shows are famous people, they are handsome and attractive. Pretty people on screen are the key factor in the success of almost all TV products. Viewers like to look at good things and attractive people. Furthermore, Korean stars on the show provide fashion trends to viewers. In “the Korean Wave,” Lin and Tong say that “the new generation of Koreans is believed to be more hedonistic and materialistic…[and] seems very much attracted to the cosmopolitan city lifestyles and consumption patterns” (101). As a result, Korean shows are the reflection of globalization, and, at the same time, they serve to “asianize” “global consumerist cultures” (Lin & Tong 101).
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Among the differences, one can name a lack of modern image of Asian women among the cast of Infinite Challenge. However, both shows invite female guests. Thus, a lack of women is only a superficial difference because the women who finally appear on the show are represented in a rather modern way. They are actresses and singers, and lead modern way of life. However, they retain some traditional values of “idealistic femininity” (Lin & Tong 106). For example, the only female member of the cast of Running Man is Song Ji-hyo, an actress and model. Even though she is equal to men in termes of a race and intellect, the male members often treat her softer than each other.
Running Man and Infinite Challenge are Korean TV shows that reveal the fact that there is a great divide between the rural South Korea it used to be and the new, modern country it has become. Relying on their charismatic cast, chemistry among members, and popular guests, both shows humor entertain and occasionally remind about important things.
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