In October 2021, Yoo Ki-hwan, content manager at Netflix Korea, received an e-mail from a stranger with a bold pitch for a show involving 100 contestants competing in a series of brutal challenges to win a cash prize worth 300 million Korean won (about $315,000).
The scale of the show was so grand that it stopped Yoo in his tracks. The sender turned out to be Jang Ho-gi, a producer at leading Korean broadcaster MBC, now the lead producer of Physical 100, Netflix’s latest hit reality show.
“It had tones that I had not seen in plans for unscripted projects, and that made me want to make it into a Netflix show,” Yoo says.
Physical 100, which takes the form of a survival game, brings together Korea’s highest-profile athletes, bodybuilders and sports influencers, such as mixed martial arts fighters like Yoshihiro Akiyama, as they compete in extreme games that test their physical strength.
The show started with a modest cult following among local audiences, but it is now creating buzz both at home and abroad, buzz of a scale that few other Korean non-fiction shows have achieved. As of the third week of February, Physical 100 is topping Netflix’s top 10 list for non-English TV, with more than 45 million hours viewed.
Netflix now says it will release at least eight Korean unscripted titles this year, which is double its output last year in the category. The streamer is looking to do for the Korean reality category what it did for Korean drama with the global success of Squid Game. Forthcoming shows will include a variety of themes, including mind games, a zombie format and dating reality shows, such as the third season of the popular Single Inferno.
“Korean nonfiction shows didn’t really travel before Netflix started taking them global,” says Don Kang, Netflix’s vp of content in Korea. “There are some ways that we made shows more easily understandable to the global audience — not the creative itself, but maybe the use of on-screen text and subtitles.
If you watch some Korean nonfiction shows, the style in which they use text and subtitles in combination with the creative intention, sometimes makes it very hard for the content to travel. So, it’s more about communicating the creative intent in the right way. Those are tactical issues but I think they do make a lot of difference.”
Korean entertainment giant CJ Entertainment has enjoyed international sales for its non-scripted Korean titles over the past decade. But it was within the last few years that the company began to see a drastic rise of interest in Korean non-fiction formats. I Can See Your Voice, the company’s singing reality competition, was sold in 27 countries, including the U.S. where Korean-American comedian Ken Jeong is a host.
Grandpas Over Flowers, a reality show featuring Korean actors in their 70s and 80s traveling to Europe to fulfill their bucket list, was sold to 12 countries and became the first Korean format to be picked up by NBC. Separately, I-LAND, a boy band audition series, was nominated for a non-scripted Emmy in 2021.
“There is a definite trend where non-scripted K-content is expanding,” says Diane Min, CJ ENM’s head of format sales. “K-content has been in the spotlight for years, and its formats are recognized for uniqueness. Creators challenge themselves to make something that is really fresh and distinctive. We’ve been able to experience this firsthand with the success of our popular titles, such as I Can See Your Voice and Grandpas Over Flowers.”
CJ has an ambitious slate of non-scripted content planned for 2023, including Boys Planet, a K-pop boy band audition program that involves fans voting to select members of the group from contestants from around the globe. Around 229 music labels from 84 regions submitted applicants for the show.
The trend has allowed many South Korean producers to rethink the spectrum of their audience and the focus of their programming — including both the content slant and technical details that are required to make a show go global.
Some shows simply feature a cast that has global appeal. Jinny’s Kitchen, CJ’s latest reality show set in the Mexican city of Bacalar, features a celebrity cast running a Korean snack bar and serving Korean dishes abroad. For the show, the producer selected actors and musicians who have performed on the highest levels of the world stage, including V of BTS and Choi Woo-sik, the young star of Bong Joon-ho’s multi-Oscar winner Parasite.
Jang, creator and producer of Netflix’s Physical 100, says he learned to embrace an outsider’s point of view and minimize local references and nuances when working with the streamer for the first time. Instead, he focused on the universal human emotions and expressions behind each contestant’s journey.
“Because it was also aimed at global audiences, I thought that it shouldn’t be difficult for them to follow the flow of the show,” he says. “So far, the response from overseas is far more than I expected. People are asking ‘Why wouldn’t you do the show outside of Korea?’ They’re recommending suitable contestants in their own country. As a producer, I’d love to be able to shoot this show on every continent. I hope the show develops into a program that contestants from all over the world can participate in.”