Compared to families and friends of celebrities who have made frequent appearances on TV, people outside of the entertainment industry rarely get the chance to share their anxieties and frustrations on such a mass medium.
With so many people staying home and losing human connections, viewers are curious about how others are getting through the tough times. A subway train operator, a photographer who has taken pictures of over 500 Korean War veterans and a marketer who boldly quit his job to run a small bookstore are considered far more interesting than a bunch of famous celebrities who stay in the limelight.
Ordinary people share their stories in an honest and authentic way, which arouses the empathy of like-minded people. From dating shows to talk shows, reality TV shows featuring ordinary people have seen high ratings as viewers have grown tired of the same old TV personalities.
Lee Dong-kyu, a professor of Broadcasting & Entertainment at Dongduk Women's University, said reality TV has shifted from stirring up contrived moments to keeping it real over the last two decades.
"Unlike the past when producers tried to draw a clear line between celebrities and non-celebrities, it became natural to reveal the human nature of stars and feature non-celebrities who mimic problems in real-life relationships. From the 2010s to the present day, it's sincerity that provides a safe space for viewers," he wrote in his book "The Secret of Reality TV."
Earlier this month, broadcaster MBC began to air "My Working Vlog," an observational reality show that looks into the work life of ordinary people from diverse professions, including a banker, journalist, software engineer, firefighter and carpenter.
"I was a bit worried about observing the lives of ordinary people, not celebrities. Surprisingly, the reaction to our show was positive. No matter what their profession, people all go to work every day and spend the majority of their time there. Many said they were able to sympathize with the cast," producer Jeong Da-hee said.
"Viewers can study the new jobs that are being created by technological advances, such as software engineer, to professions that we encounter in our everyday lives like a subway train operator and firefighter. We are also planning to introduce someone who works abroad."
Another non-celebrity show that has been creating a buzz is Channel A's "Friends," which premiered in February. It centers on eight young people (three men, five women) who meet up with their chosen partners and spend a day together.
Unlike dating show "Heart Signal," in which the cast live together in Seoul and pursue romance, "Friends" focuses on making friends and sharing their interests. Amid a pandemic where most everyday activities remain off-limits, the banality becomes interesting to watch.
"There are certain limits to showing celebrities' lifestyle through an observational format. With an ordinary cast of people with different professions, lifestyles and hobbies, we could create more diverse content," producer Park Cheol-hwan said during a press conference for the show in February.
TvN's reality show "You Quiz on the Block" casts people who would've otherwise never considered being on reality TV. SBS' producer and interviewer Lee Eun-jae, who is better known as Jaejae, has created a newly coined term that holds the meaning of "half-celebrity and half-ordinary person."
However, the rise in the shows' popularity has also been accompanied by some controversies. For instance, a young student who appeared in "You Quiz on the Block" has been attacked online for choosing medical school after graduating from a science high school. In Korea, science high schools were established to nurture students to pursue studies in science and technology.
Some of the viewers flew into a rage when "Heart Signal" cast member Kim Hyun-woo, who was caught drunk driving three times, appeared in "Friends."
"Going from celebrity-centric shows to non-celebrity shows is a changing trend. The days of gathering in front of a TV and cheering for entertainers are gone," said Koo Jeong-woo, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Sungkyunkwan University.
"However, the production teams need to be cautious in vetting the cast, as past actions of non-celebrity participants could sabotage the show's reputation. At the same time, they should ensure the dignity and rights of non-celebrity participants."
source: The Korea Times