K7 Media

K7 Media

Mystery and betrayal define the second wave of global Korean formats

In just a few years, the phenomenal success of The Masked Singer has transformed Korea into a global format powerhouse, with buyers worldwide eagerly seeking the next big hit from the country. While Korean creators strive to replicate the guessing game’s triumph, a shift towards the mystery-meets-reality genre seems to be emerging. All three formats presented at the Korean Formats Super Session during MIPTV 2024 – Apartment 404 from CJ ENM, Still Alive from Something Special, and Bloody Game from MBC – showcase a departure from their signature light-hearted singing shows. Indeed, these shows tap into our innate desire to solve puzzles and unravel mysteries, challenging participants to manipulate others or conquer enigmatic challenges using their wits.

Seizing this opportunity, K7 Media engaged in conversations with these Korean creators offstage, delving into the rationale behind the selection of these formats and how they perceive this new strand of mystery and psychological reality formats in the Korean unscripted landscape.

Left to right: Apartment 404 (CJ ENM), Still Alive (Something Special), and Bloody Game (MBC).

It wasn’t surprising to see MBC take Bloody Game to Cannes, given the tremendous recent success of Spillet, the Norwegian version, and also its first international adaptation. As Jean Hur, Director of Format Sales and Co-Development at MBC, shared, “The average rating after three episodes of Spillet – broadcast plus streaming – outperformed the rating averages of adaptations of The Voice, The Traitors, The Farm, and Best Singer from 2022-2024, and it is especially popular among younger targeted groups including those aged 20-49 and 15-49.” The Korean version also premiered with great success, taking up 26.1% of the TV popularity index share, the highest among all unscripted shows that day. Whether labelled as ‘a reality within a reality’ or ‘an unscripted crossover of Squid Game and Parasite’, watching people sabotaging each other and sending one another to a mouldy basement has proven to be universally appealing.

Bloody Game was first launched in November 2021. Banijay picked up the format in 2022, representing it in nine European territories. The Norwegian version, produced by Banijay’s label Mastiff, debuted in February 2024. This marks a turnaround of just over two years – half the time it took The Masked Singer to go from its Korean debut in 2015 to its US premiere on Fox in 2019. “There is high interest in the Bloody Game format from many countries around the world after the presentation at MIPTV,” Jean added. “Although we are not at the stage of disclosing specific deals, I can certainly share with you that Bloody Game is heading its way to becoming a global-scale format.”

While MBC’s Bloody Game has its memorable basement set-up, Apartment 404 from CJ ENM unfolds in a mystifying apartment building. There celebrity residents strive to uncover the truth behind a series of real incidents spanning different eras. Producer Cheol-min Jeong conceived the idea with a passion for not only entertaining audiences with its detective elements and storytelling, but also offering insights into the past and present of Korean apartment living. “The spaces where we used to play in our childhood have now become symbols of desire. We wanted to showcase what apartments were like and what we were like in the past through an entertaining narrative,” he explained. Jeong also believes in the format’s unique blend of past real-life events with the mystery genre, creating a captivating hybrid that sets it apart from similar shows. “By basing the main storyline on real-life events, both the cast and viewers can easily immerse themselves in the narrative. The confined space of an apartment adds an extra layer of freshness to the storytelling,” he said. “Additionally, elements of deduction derived from real incidents undergo a transformation for entertainment purposes, keeping audiences engaged. The handling of real events in each episode towards the conclusion, akin to current affairs programmes, also adds depth by conveying social messages. For instance, utilising real-life incidents such as crimes in the 1990s or satire regarding corrupt officials in the 1980s creates tension-filled stories that resonate with audiences.”

The show generated considerable buzz ahead of its launch, thanks to the casting of Jennie from the K-pop group BLACKPINK and Korean top TV host Jae-suk Yoo. It has proven to appeal to a younger audience, performing better in the streaming space than on linear broadcast. Within just two days of its release on Amazon Prime Video, it entered the SVOD’s Top 10 list in 17 countries outside Korea.

While the aforementioned two formats are from major Korean broadcasters, Still Alive comes from one of the country’s most prolific independent production companies, Something Special. Launched in September 2021 during Korean Thanksgiving Day on the smaller channel iHQ, Still Alive‘s viewership rate was 130% higher than the channel’s average, and the show was popular among the targeted millennial and Gen Z demographics. Born out of the pandemic, the primary goal ‘was to produce a format that feels lighter and more entertaining, like a black comedy, rather than too heavy and serious, especially for viewers seeking a break during the challenging times of COVID-19’, as shared by Praise Shin, Something Special’s Head of International Business. Still Alive features contestants staying together in a mansion with only one simple mission: never violate the death rule. Yet no one tells them what the death rule is, as they must figure it out themselves. In October 2023, the German production company MoveMe optioned the format for Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, while Mediawan also acquired the format in April, with its Catalonia-based firm Veranda producing the Spanish version.

Despite their distinct premises, Bloody Game, Apartment 404, and Still Alive share a common thread: blending games into reality while tapping into our innate desire to solve puzzles and unravel mysteries. As Praise Shin astutely observes, “It’s fun to solve the puzzles and challenges. It’s satisfying to figure things out, even if they’re not in real life.” Whether deciphering the elusive death rule in Still Alive, unravelling crimes from the 1990s in Apartment 404, or navigating the treacherous web of human schemes in Bloody Game, these shows captivate viewers by challenging them to exercise their minds – both cognitively and psychologically – to unveil hidden answers and truths. While the singing game predecessors have left their mark globally with visually shiny stages and quirky, unprecedented mechanisms, this 2.0 wave of Korean formats exemplifies the ingenuity of the country’s format creators. This time, it comes through their injection of intellectual stimulation coupled with suspenseful storytelling into the reality genre, traditionally dominated by the West.

Delving deeper, the transition from light-hearted family-friendly singing game shows to these mystery, psychological reality formats isn’t as drastic for Korea, given the genre’s local popularity.

Sehee Jang, CJ ENM’s Head of Global Marketing/PR, notes, “Mystery reality shows perform exceptionally well domestically, especially among younger viewers. Shows like High School Mystery Club have garnered significant popularity, demonstrating the enthusiasm of the domestic audience for this genre. Even PD Jung Cheol-min’s previous work, Sixth Sense, was so well-received that it led to multiple seasons. This trend indicates a strong and sustained interest in mystery reality programming among viewers in Korea.”

According to Jean Hur, “Celebrity reality shows have also long been one of the best-received genres in Korea, with MBC’s I Live Alone being on air since 2013, granting audiences a glimpse into the personal lives of celebrities living alone. However, there were only a few survival reality shows in the market, mainly for two reasons: the relatively high production cost being a burden, and producers’ assumption that it is not a genre that Korean audiences enjoy watching. Nevertheless, the success of Bloody Game, with Korean OTT platform Wavve investing 100% of the production cost, has contributed to changing this perception.”

Following the success of Bloody Game, local streamer Wavve introduced another reality show, The Community (pictured), earlier this year, with MBC representing as its exclusive worldwide distributor. The social experiment features contestants with diverse political and social beliefs residing together in a mansion. By day, they complete tasks, pay taxes, and select leaders. By night, they engage in heated and anonymous debates on topics like feminism and politics. “When The Community was streaming, the number of new Wavve subscribers increased fourfold, making the show the number one attraction for many weeks in both unscripted and scripted categories,” Jean added. “Right after watching the show, we instantly knew that the show has a universal and strong theme. We believe that the show has a potential to travel internationally in this era of polarised ideologies.”

Looking ahead, Korea’s unscripted landscape will diversify in its genres, with mystery reality continuing to thrive.

As Jean notes, Korea is clearly expanding its genres in producing unscripted shows, flourishing with new and innovative ideas that inject fresh twists into existing formats like the ‘social hierarchy’ element of Bloody Game or the exploration of ‘different ideological values’ in The Community;With a new generation of open-minded, flexible young producers at the helm, Korea will continue to input fresh twists in every existing genre of formats.” From CJ ENM, Sehee’s perspective aligns, predicting that the Korean mystery reality genre will continue to evolve and diversify, pointing to the upcoming UK version of The Genius Game. “There’s a growing anticipation for innovative concepts and captivating storylines in Korean mystery entertainment. As Korean detective shows continue to refine their formats, incorporating more sophisticated storytelling techniques, I’m sure they’ll attract even more attention not only domestically but also internationally. This evolution may lead to the birth of even more unique and thrilling formats, ensuring the genre remains vibrant and appealing to audiences in Korea and beyond.”

In the latest updates, Something Special has already acquired the international rights to The Penthouse Game, where tenants of a penthouse compete to become its owner by getting closer to the luxurious top floor. Netflix launched The 8 Show in May, a scripted drama that plays out like an unscripted version would, featuring eight people taking part in a reality show where their prize money depends on how long they can last in a mysterious eight-floor building. The fact that even scripted shows about mystery reality have their own rules and format points shows just how deep this trend goes. Since The Traitors‘ success, the global appetite for innovative formats like these has become undeniable. While this trend is happening worldwide, Korea is clearly taking the lead in both the volume and quality of shows in this new genre.

Trang Nguyen

Trang graduated from the University of Manchester with a master's degree in Business Psychology. Having joined K7 Media in 2019, she tracks the evolution of TV and entertainment trends across the Asian territory. She has also expanded her knowledge into the Middle East and Africa region, overseeing K7's MEA monthly report.

Outside of work, Trang enjoys watching Asian dramas and checking out new restaurants around the area.