Weird, wacky and all-conquering – Stuart Kemp hides his identity to enter the formats factory that gave us The Masked Singer.
Crazy and cool with a K” is a good moniker for the jaw-dropping South Korean entertainment formats delivering jaw-dropping audience figures around the world. In the UK, The Masked Singer, I Can See Your Voice and, most recently, The Masked Dancer have featured celebrities disguised as everything from a bee and an octopus to a sausage, good and bad singers from the great British public hiding in plain sight and dance routines from a llama, chicken and knickerbocker glory.
“We were ready to embrace something new, to do something big and bold and a bit nuts,” says Joe Mace, ITV commissioning editor for entertainment. The UK’s biggest commercial broadcaster is home to both The Masked Singer and The Masked Dancer, two of the highest-profile fresh entertainment formats to appear in the past 10 years.
The Masked Singer melds elements of a guessing game, singing competition, a comedy panel show, celebrities and an audience vote. All wrapped up with outrageous costumes, disguised voices and a big reveal every show.
Since debuting in January 2020, the show has sat in ITV’s Saturday night early-evening slot, one occupied by The X Factor. It is produced by Bandicoot, the Scottish indie commissioned to produce a UK version of what was already a high-budget, shiny-floor hit show in both its native South Korea and then the US.
Bandicoot optioned the UK format rights to The Masked Singer in 2018 from MBC, which broadcasts the show in South Korea. Founded by Derek McLean and Daniel Nettleton, Bandicoot is a joint venture with Argonon Group and was formed to advance the pair’s passion for wild and twisted entertainment formats.
Nettleton became obsessed with securing the UK rights after he started watching hours and hours of the Korean and Thai versions on YouTube in 2015. “We were only a little, two-year-old indie at the time. Getting the option was expensive for us – half of our development budget for a year,” he explains. “It was a bet that we felt we should and could take.”
The bet paid out handsomely when the US version of The Masked Singer – made by reality TV guru Craig Plestis – debuted on Fox Network in January 2019. It launched to a multi-platform consolidated audience of 17.6 million, making it Fox’s most-watched unscripted debut in 11 years, and the most-watched unscripted debut on any network for seven years.
Last year, Plestis launched another South Korean format on Fox, I Can See Your Voice, which became the season’s number-one new entertainment show. Meanwhile, The Masked Singer picked up an Emmy for outstanding costumes for a variety, non-fiction or reality programme. And, with Plestis at the helm, Masked Singer sister show The Masked Dancer debuted in the US in December 2020.
“Korea seems to be unafraid to break out of the box and the formats are not derivative,” says Plestis. “The Masked Singer was bonkers, weird and frightening for any network to take on. Fox was bold enough to do that.”
The Masked Singer and I Can See Your Voice both blend different strands of format television. They are “a singing thing, and a ‘guess who? competition”, says Plestis of both.
BBC entertainment director Kate Phillips shares his love of genre-bending formats. She commissioned I Can See Your Voice in 2019 from Fremantle’s UK entertainment label Thames. It had been on her radar before Thames pitched to her.
“Korea follows the ‘kiss’ rule: ‘Keep it simple, stupid.’ That’s a really good rule when you’re developing formats,” says Phillips. “South Korean shows always have a very clear USP at their heart. You can sell it in a sentence. They try out hundreds of ideas every year and they’re very smart and very savvy.”
I Can See Your Voice features a guest artist and a team of two contestants presented with a group of six “mystery singers” — some of them good singers, some bad.
The contestants must attempt to eliminate bad singers from the group by guessing who they are without hearing them sing. Over the course of four rounds, they receive clues and help from the show’s celebrity panellists. The winning mystery singer is revealed as good or bad by means of a duet with one of the guest artists. If they get it right, the contestants win a cash prize and the final singer can then belt out a tune.
Phillips has just commissioned a second series, and the format has been sold to 18 countries so far.
The boom in interest for Korean formats began in 2016, when travel reality show format Grandpas over Flowers sold to NBCUniversal in the US. It aired there as Better Late than Never, and secured deals for further countries, including Italy, Turkey and France.
Channel 4 head of entertainment Phil Harris suggests that South Korea is a hotbed of cultural creativity right now. Think boy-band phenomenon BTS and the Oscar-winning film Parasite. Harris is mulling pitches and considering various South Korean formats but no decisions have been finalised. It is an open secret that Channel 4 was in the running to land The Masked Singer before ITV swooped.
"The Masked Singer was bonkers, weird and frightening for any network to take on"
He points out that The Masked Singer and other Korean formats can appeal to young audiences on digital platforms. “Both The Masked Singer and I Can See Your Voice have a guessing game at the heart of the format, which can be successfully truncated for social media platforms,” Harris observes. “It’s a visual truth that, if you are scrolling through social media and see a giant sausage costume and someone shouting, “Take it off, take it off”, that is going to pique your interest.”
CJ ENM, the Korean corporation behind Parasite and the multi-territory-selling Grandpas over Flowers format, intends to raise its investment in entertainment content to an eye-watering $4.4bn over the next five years. Netflix has said it will spend around $450m in South Korea in 2021.
CJ ENM’s head of format sales, Diane Min, says the company is developing fresh formats with global audiences in mind: “Last year, we had a show called I-Land. It was an idol-incubating format that targeted both local audiences and the global market.”
She notes that international buyers are striking co-production deals in addition to snapping up format shows ad hoc. CJ ENM collaborated with California-based Bunim/Murray Productions to develop Cash Back, a format aimed at both the Korean and global marketplaces.
Other formats coming soon from South Korea include the dating and singing format Love at First Song and 300: War of United Voices, which sees a superstar work towards a performance with 300 superfans. The latter launched in Germany last year on ProSiebenSat.1. Then there is Falling in Dance, a reality dating and dance show and music competition jeopardy series Double Casting.
The Korea Creative Content Agency (Kocca), a government agency that oversees and co-ordinates the promotion of the local content industry, says an average of 300 new shows launch each year.
Phillips points out: “It’s such a gamble, the entertainment game. What you really need is to have a lot of chips at the table so you can place a lot of bets and see what lands.
“That is exactly what they do in South Korea.”