Noonsong got to know <Heart Signal 4> on SNS. On YouTube or Instagram, content about the program's short videos and reviews can be frequently seen. Also, when she met her friends, she heard them talk about the show and identify with it. She wasn't originally interested in romance programs, but she began watching it as she had become curious about why it kept on making headlines.
A change in the way they express love
In Korean broadcasting, dating entertainment programs have become Top OTT rankings content by gaining huge popularity among people. Starting when <Heart Signal 2> in 2018 became very popular, various other dating programs have begun to air on different channels and OTT platforms. In <Heart Signal> ordinary people lodged together and found their lover to become the final couple while a panel observed them. It became popular as it added the fun of 'reasoning' to capture the process of dating and to guess the final couple among them. Due to this popularity, the <Heart Signal> program started with season 1 in 2017 and ended with season 4 in August. According to data released by GOODDATA Corp in August, <Heart Signal 4> set a record for being the No. 1 TV non-drama show in terms of topicality for 10 weeks in a row. This shows that the program has been constantly talked about for the past six and has attracted great attention. With this influence, various channels and OTTs have created dating programs with a total of 26 released in 2022. A variety of dating programs are airing, including <Love After Divorce>, which deals with the love and cohabitation of divorced persons, <EXchange>, <Change Days> where broken lovers gather to find love, and <His Man>, which includes sexual minorities. These programs have expanded the framework of the program in that they deal with love of various ages and ways such as divorce and sexual minorities, away from the framework of 'love of young men and women.' These newly created programs continue to be popular as they deal with various stories related to love rather than a single consistent subject.
The start of dating programs is not recent. The first dating program in 2011, <Jjak> showed ordinary people lodging together to find a spouse. It was popular because it showed competition as well as romance and the cast's realistic couples dating. As such, past dating programs focused specifically on becoming a couple. On the other hand, in the case of the dating program <EXchange>, which aired in 2021, a complicated narrative of a reunion with an ex, their new love, and entanglements in between. In response, one viewer said, "<EXchange> has excellent storytelling as well as visual and auditory elements in each episode. If you follow the emotional stories of the cast, you can feel joy and sorrow."1) Like a drama or movie, it immerses the viewer in a dating program with its quality of visual beauty and storylines. In the case of <Single's Inferno>, which aired in the same year, the complicated emotions and narratives of the cast were revealed in a setting where they must couple up, and they can escape from the island of hell. They still have the purpose of making couples like in the past but are evolving by adding their own specific style of emphasizing narratives and adding new elements.
Why focus on these stories?
Unlike before, the storytelling method of the recent dating program is similar to the way the drama unfolds. Although people feel joy and sorrow through the love stories of the characters while watching romance dramas or movies, there is a limit to how much viewers can identify with it as it is fiction. Regarding dating programs, one viewer said, "Dating programs are more like dramas than dramas themselves are these days. The drama goes in an obvious direction, but the dating program is more fun because the situation is unpredictable. In particular, they are more immersive because regular people appear on them."2) This shows that the unpredictability of dating programs, which contain the nature of reality in special situations in which ordinary people appear, keeps viewers watching. In other words, they sympathize more than dramas because realistic elements are included in dating programs. In the case of dating programs that show ex or current lovers, the cast's recollection of their love life maximizes immersion by naturally reminding viewers of their love life beyond empathy for their narrative. Also, most programs have a format in which observers are placed to analyze them, and interviews that reveal the cast's innermost thoughts about a situation are edited in after it is shown. This format helps maximize immersion, which reduces the distance between the cast and the viewer. These programs amplify the fun of the program by providing viewers with its honest and interesting structure.
In this way, empathy through the program and immersion in it has led to viewers sharing their thoughts about them with each other. A woman in her 20s said, "After watching <EXchange>, I wanted to share about it. Most people have had at least one dating experience, and I think it's a subject that everyone knows well, so it's perfect for conversation."3) This reveals that dating programs can contribute to communication with friends or others online, not just watching the communication of panels within the program. According to Open Survey's Changes in the Way of Consumption Led by Digital Platform Growth in November 2022, those who had watched <EXchange 2> mostly accessed it through the YouTube channel of TVING. They also saw information about it on Instagram posts and reels. As short clip videos of the program were shared on YouTube and Instagram, it became easy to communicate with people or share with others through the comments. Several of them bring viewers together to talk and debate about the contents, such as who certain cast members will choose or who will be the final couple. In addition, content that is the subject of YouTube reviews of the program is also gaining popularity. In that way, dating programs are becoming a topic for communication and sharing about them becomes more prevalent even among those who haven't watched them. Through this, viewers feel interested and continue to watch. There are several online community sites related to popular dating programs where people share reviews of each episode and talk about their views on the relationships or have serious discussions that evaluate the cast members' actions and choices. Therefore, as people who watch dating programs share with each other in various ways, the number of people watching them also increases.
The wavelength that this has brought
People's interest in dating programs has naturally led to interest in the cast. At the same time as a dating program airs, several portal sites upload their information, including their SNS addresses. Sung Hae-eun, one of the cast members of <EXchange 2>, the number of followers on her personal Instagram account surpassed 1 million by the time the program ended, which is similar to the kind of impact celebrities have. As such, ordinary people have gained popularity just like celebrities, coining the term 'yeon-ban-in', which is a combination of celebrity and ordinary person. An entertainment official said, "Recently, there has been a demand for stars who appear naturally as they go through issues, and this is playing out in dating reality programs. With the combination of their natural behavior as well as their star potential, those who gain popularity as stars are expected to continue in this way."4) While influencers were previously created by their agencies, recently new types of influencers have been naturally produced in programs targeting the general public, and their star potential would continue. On the other hand, there are voices of concern about excessive criticism of the cast due to the double-sidedness of the program's prevalence. Viewers who are excessively immersed in them indiscriminately post slanderous comments about the cast. The problem is that the broadcasting companies are passive in protecting the cast, such as editing and releasing videos stimulatingly to arouse viewers' interest and not actively suing viewers' excessive reactions. Recently, one cast member who couldn't stand the excessive malicious comments any more filed a complaint against the commenters after the program aired. Also, another cast member posted on SNS that he was receiving psychiatric treatment due to the exposure of personal information to not only himself but also his family. The popularity of the program also caused negative side effects to ordinary cast members.
In response to the program itself as well as the cast, questions have been raised about the authenticity of the program. This is because some of them sometimes appear to be excessively directed. In the case of <Heart Signal 4>, there was criticism that the production team intervened and manipulated the timeline at a time when the performers' daily emotions were important. Viewers responded negatively with comments such as "Why does it sound like they're acting?" and "I can't concentrate well this season." The editing that was manipulated to simulate viewers' interest rather reduced viewer's interest. Excessive PPL (pay-per-lead) that appears in the broadcast is also considered a factor that hinders viewers' immersion. In recent dating programs, including <Heart Signal>, a male cast member presented a hand cream to a female cast member, the brand was clearly shown and the product was promoted online by the cast member. This is a common marketing strategy that many companies try to use in several programs such as dramas and entertainment shows. However, this over-promotion rather halves the reality of dating programs. About this, one viewer said, "Dating programs usually show dramatic emotions or behavior in unrealistic situations which lead to psychological fights with each other."5) It means that the special situation of these programs has an interruption when conveying reality. The dating program designed to make couples and show honest feelings about love seems to be driven away from its essence by artificial production.
Literally, is it reality?
In Korean society, dating programs have become very popular and more and more have been created. Their popularity rests on evoking empathy, delivering an immersive experience and providing joy when sharing about them. This constant buzz has created interest about the concept of "lover." On the other hand, excessive PPL to secure production costs or controversy over manipulation to capture viewers' interest are reducing viewers' trust and interest, contrary to their intentions.
1) Choi Min-ji, "In the Heyday of Dating Entertainment, Why We Watch 'Other People's Dating'", The Kyunghyang Shinmun, October 30, 2022
2) Yoon Ye-won, ""It's More Like a Drama Than a Drama." Viewers Crying and Laughing at Ordinary People's Love Reality", Chosun Biz, October 4, 2022
3) See Footnote 1
4) Go Jae-wan, "Real Dating Programs, 'Yeon-Ban-In'…Being Sponsored and Becoming MC, Celebrity Popularity," The Sports Chosun, October 4, 2022
5) Yang A-ra, ""You Didn't Choose a Relationship" a Real Relationship Is Shown When Woke Up From the Overindulgence of a Romance Fantasy Dream Dating Program", HuffPost Korea, January 13, 2023