As Mnet drew up plans to follow the “Produce 48” series, they must have known it was going to be difficult. The vote-rigging saga, with the final results being fabricated by producers of “Produce X 101”, had led to fines and prison sentences, and affected both IZ*ONE and X1.
But, with K-pop promoters having an eye on the lucrative and growing Western, Japanese and Chinese markets, they drew up plans to form a joint Korean/Japanese/Chinese global K-Pop group… but their timing could hardly have been worse. Political relations between the three countries were hitting new lows, and this was spilling out into social media.
A show beset with problems
As the program started political tensions surfaced quickly, as some Chinese contestants were identified as having referred to the Korean War as the “War to Resist America and Aid Korea”, China’s official stance on the war. Unlike in Produce 48 all references to national differences were being edited out of the show. This would avoid any touchy political issues, but the show lost the feeling of honest, humorous and generally favourable comparisons generated by its predecessor.
There were various allegations of irregularities, including a certain contestant’s fans buying multiple SIM cards to vote, and the whole show came under criticism for poor editing and content, with lots of “fluff” and less content of actual performances, which was made more obvious by having shorter episodes than Produce 48.
Viewing figures must have been disappointing for Mnet, with only about a third of the viewers tuning in compared to Produce 48 according to AGB Nielsen. After two rounds of voting, Korean viewers seemed to be turning off, and after the next two rounds, even more vanished as they saw the possibility that a K-Pop group could end up having a majority of Chinese and Japanese contestants.
Then there was the crackdown by the Chinese authorities on pop culture as part of their “rectification campaign”. Although this seems to have had little effect on K-pop’s growth inside China, with album sales still increasing, it was perceived by some as an anti-Korean response to the increase in popularity of Korean popular music and programs.
And then there was the voting.
Don’t like the results – then change the voting
Right from the start Mnet said the voting would be 50% Korean and 50% International voting, which would be carried out on the “Universe” app , but reserved the right to change the rules of the voting itself… and they took advantage of that.
At first contestants were divided into “cells” with one girl of each nationality in a cell, with voters allowed to vote for 3 cells. This caused problems where a popular or talented girl was teamed up with two others who weren’t, and led to some expected stars being eliminated early – a change was clearly needed.
The change was to allow votes for 3 girls from each of the 3 nationalities, making a total of 9 votes. This resulted in a top 27 (revealed during episode 8), with only 2 of the top 9 at this stage being Korean.
Mnet now changed the voting system again, so just 1 girl from each of the 3 nationalities could be voted for in the next round, and the final 18 were chosen – the top 9 of the 18 remaining at this stage being 4 Japanese, 3 Korean and 2 Chinese.
Mnet now revealed the final voting system, which would be just one vote per person, with votes cast during the live finale being doubled but, as always, non-Korean votes would be capped at 50% of the total. Fans were immediately upset by a change to a system that was seen to disadvantage non-Korean members.
And this led to the final line-up of the group (named “Kep1er”) of 6 Korean, 2 Japanese and 1 Chinese member.
Who voted for who
Because Mnet were keen to show the transparency of the voting process they revealed the final votes in detail.
This showed that Korean voters gave their top 9 votes to the only 9 Korean members left in the competition. But if international votes had been dealt with equally, the results would have revealed 4 Korean, 2 Japanese and 3 Chinese members.
That would probably have been a group with a bigger overseas following (especially in China), but at the expense of Koreans, some of whom had made a campaign to only vote for Korean members irrespective of their skill level.
Kep1er has a 2.5 year contract – whether that gets extended will depend on their popularity. But, with HYBE rumoured to be about to launch a new girl group with former popular IZ*ONE members Kim Chae-won and Sakura Miyawaki, they could have some major competition.