[Essay] The Complex Relationship between the Creative Industry and Sarcasm: the “Fifty Fifty" Scandal

The "Fifty-Fifty Incident" stands out as one of the most talked-about issues in the Korean entertainment industry this year. However, rather than capturing widespread public attention, it has generated more discussion among industry insiders.


Author : Jung Hojai, K-pop columnist

In the realm of media-related tasks, including news and publishing, effectively managing the constant risk of "potential errors" stands out as one of the most formidable challenges. The significant stress it places on both authors and editors is widely acknowledged. The true complexity arises in the process of rectifying these errors. Typos, grammatical errors, fact-checking discrepancies, and misunderstandings that lead to bad decisions are all things that people can do wrong, which adds to the difficulty. The corrective process, in itself, becomes a crucial "civilizational task" demanding attention.

Once a piece of work is "publicly released," the process of making revisions becomes notably cumbersome. Furthermore, individuals in the field of knowledge tend to show a strong inclination towards authority, being more forgiving of their own mistakes while adopting a stringent approach towards others. In the case of media outlets, dealing with a wealth of produced information prompts a quest for solutions through "organizational" collaboration. Proofreading and editing teams address errors in sentence structure and expression, team leaders and sub-editors focus on industry grammar and practices, while department heads and assistant department heads share responsibility for determining the "final release." This hierarchical structure and division of roles effectively quells any potential rebellion from writers.

In contrast, the dynamics of the publishing market appear to be a balanced partnership between the author and the editor (or publisher), with a 50-50 collaboration. When the collaboration is harmonious, it can result in the birth of a literary masterpiece. However, the equilibrium is fragile, and even a slight imbalance can swiftly turn the venture into a failure. The breakdown of mutual respect signifies the end of the game. On a positive note, with only two parties involved, cooperation is less challenging than engaging in outright conflict, especially when there's sufficient financial support.

The new girl group <Fifty Fifty> will have a significant impact on the K-enter business in 2023.

1. Broadcasting as Commercial Art

In contrast, within the realm of commercial arts such as broadcasting, film, music, and games, it appears that at least 80% of the authority and responsibility lies in the hands of the "producer" or "PD" (Program Director). Unlike the publishing industry, which disperses responsibility, in visual media, the director holds significant authority. This authority extends to the quality and content of the work, and even its sales performance. This is a significant departure from the world of print media, such as newspapers and magazines.

There is a compelling background to this dynamic. Above all, visual media is inherently "commercial art." It needs to capture the audience's attention, meaning it must sell in the market for everyone to be content. The unpredictable nature of quantitatively predicting selling points in this essentially blind market makes it challenging. Consequently, the judgment of the market becomes more critical than various evaluation factors, such as the accuracy of content, teamwork, or artistic merit of the work. Therefore, the responsibility is attributed to a single person, either the "director" or the "producer," who individually leads the work's value and the quality of commercialization.

Hence, claiming that someone "makes the director frustrated" is a simplistic perspective. Naturally, the entire production team, investors, actors, and assistants have agreed to follow the direction of "one person." The director assumes the authority and strives to do their best, and historically, this approach has proven to yield better results.

2. The Complexity of the Incident

The "Fifty-Fifty Incident" stands out as one of the most talked-about issues in the Korean entertainment industry this year. However, rather than capturing widespread public attention, it has generated more discussion among industry insiders. For those not deeply involved in the world of K-pop, it may not be an immediately compelling topic. Personally, I found it challenging to fully grasp the news, often feeling it was a convoluted "ownership dispute." The abundance of English names like "ATRAK," "Fifty Fifty," "The Givers," "Warner," and others only added to the complexity, making it even more challenging for Korean readers to comprehend.

Nevertheless, at its core, the incident isn't as intricate as it may seem. The primary conflict revolves around a financial dispute between legal entity A, the investor, and producer B, the creator of the team and songs. The first point of contention involves the role of the "singer," the focal point of the song. Consequently, the K-pop industry implemented the rule of "exclusive for 7 years after the contract," establishing a temporary power dynamic favoring the producer. Given that K-pop singers often debut in their late teens and that the true protagonists of K-pop are the PDs, this agreement makes sense.

The second point of dispute is the power dynamic between the "company" and the "PD" who invested money. While it would be ideal to consolidate these roles within a single organization, recent trends in the K-pop industry reveal the initial conflict arising from the rise of "outsourced production." The "Big 5" in K-pop typically internally employ PDs for competition, but in smaller ventures, such endeavors are not as straightforward. Consequently, the trend has shifted towards contracting skilled producers (PDs) for various aspects, from selecting trainees to debut, resulting in young singers increasingly relying on PDs and causing psychological conflicts in this production environment.

3. Avoiding Sarcasm

The "Fifty-Fifty Incident" has surpassed six months, and with SBS's <그것이 알고 싶다 (Unanswered Questions)> joining the discussions, the complexity of the situation has become widely known. As a result, even young singers in their late teens now carry the unfortunate nickname of "betrayal."

Throughout this process, my most significant question has been, "Why did legal entity A (ATRAK) invest nearly 8 billion won without adequately monitoring and supervising the PD (The Givers)?" Specifically, why was the oversight neglected to the extent that affiliated singers trust the "PD" more than the "company"? When I asked this question to a music industry professional, they summarized it concisely in one paragraph:

"Senior, it seems you don't fully grasp the core of the creative industry. A producer must never be frustrated. Until a rookie singer debuts and begins their activities, the PD is unquestionably in control. Especially if you interfere with money matters, the PD will never give their best to the content. They'll just do it half-heartedly."

4. Squid Game & Netflix

In the 1990s, the casting process for Korean dramas was often marked by significant interference from the broadcasting companies. The tradition of having both the PD and the cast affiliated with the broadcasting station continued during this period. This organizational involvement meant that executives at various levels could play a role in casting decisions and influence the storyline. While alterations to the final ending of a drama were sometimes attributed to the writer's change of mind, there were also stories of pressure from higher-ups, including the CEO and department heads.

Inevitably, under such a system, it was challenging for the quality of dramas to be competitive. If resources were available within the broadcasting company, bureaucratic decisions tended to take precedence. Consequently, talents had to engage in lobbying efforts with PDs, and PDs had to share kickbacks with department heads. This was particularly true when production budgets were limited, necessitating the inclusion of product placements (PPL). With PDs assuming responsibility for various aspects, including business matters, the prospects for improving the quality of dramas seemed bleak.

Since the 2000s, the trajectory of K-dramas has shifted towards "liberalization" and "outsourcing." Talents, writers, and PDs have increasingly sought independence from broadcasting companies, ushering in an era of autonomous competition at the core of the creative industry. As K-dramas responded to market preferences, content quality improved, allowing broadcasting companies to achieve significant quality within constrained production budgets. This evolution has culminated in the current dominance of platforms like Netflix and Disney+. "Squid Game" serves as a notable example, marking a transformative moment in the industry as Netflix's substantial investment of 200 billion won reshaped the dynamics of the landscape.

5. How make them give their best?

It appears that An Sung-il PD (CEO) of "The Givers," the mastermind behind <Fifty-Fifty>, was undeniably a capable individual. Despite over 40 K-pop girl groups debuting in a single year since the 2000s, only about 10% manage to achieve a reasonable level of recognition. However, <Fifty-Fifty> defied the odds, making an unprecedented debut on the Billboard charts, showcasing a harmonious blend of talent and luck.

For example, "The Givers" achieved a feat comparable to the stature of director Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creative mind behind "Squid Game." However, the challenge lay in the legal entity "ATRAK," the financial backer, which had significantly smaller capital compared to Netflix. As a result, a dispute erupted over the girl group that held the potential for significant success. At this juncture, many observers found themselves experiencing a form of perceptual distortion. Oh, even singers have now transformed into intellectual properties (IP), and the identity of a "singer" has truly become a replaceable, depersonalized entity.

As mentioned earlier, a crucial point to note is the intentional "neglect" by both the capital and legal entity, signaling a certain level of maturity in the market where creators are allowed the freedom to give their best. At the heart of the creative industry lies the commitment of creators to give their utmost. The significance of deliberate "neglect," particularly in the accumulation of legal evidence, has risen to the point where creators can even harbor "ill intentions."

6. Higher Costs and Market

The rapid increase in production costs for K-pop idols is somewhat startling. About eight years ago, when it was announced that the production of the now-disbanded group <LOONA> would cost around 100 billion won, people reacted with disbelief. Indeed, at that time, 100 billion won was an astronomical amount. Even if you gathered the money for 20 people to eat, sleep, and create music, it wouldn't come close to such a substantial sum.

However, over the past eight years, the landscape has changed. Launching a girl group through outsourcing by a small planning agency now costs 80 billion won, marking an era where even this substantial amount seems reasonable. Is leaving PDs alone and meticulously installing various contract evidences a testament to the maturity of the market, preventing arbitrary decisions? Or, on the contrary, has legal disputes still arising despite these measures become a representative incident of the "golden age"? The <Fifty-Fifty> incident remains an intriguing case. (End)