South Korea’s Meokbang Popularity Surge to Mainstream

luvsmiling, Aug. 31, 2015, 9:29 a.m.

In case you didn’t know already, South Koreans love food — not just eating it but watching just about anything that has to do with it. The latter is called “meokbang,” and it’s the latest fad in South Korean media, with every channel wielding its own food-related program. Riding on the successes of tvN’s “Three Meals a Day” and JTBC’s “Please Take Care of My Refrigerator,” SBS, a terrestrial network, unveiled Thursday its own take, “Baek Jong-won’s Three Great Emperors,” whose first episode will air Friday night. It strives to offer “a kind of meokbang you’ve never seen,” producers said.

In the preview shown at the press conference, Baek, a celebrity chef, scarfs down Korean-style marinated pork and sits back, mesmerized. The episode is set at a secluded restaurant specializing in “doeji bulgogi” in Naju, South Jeolla Province, some 355 kilometers south of Seoul. “This is exactly what I wanted,” he tells the camera, with food still in his mouth. “They still use the same recipe.”

Baek, who has clearly been there before, proceeds to share the best way to enjoy the dish — draining the excess oil and mixing the oil with rice. “I’m not supposed to be sharing this,” he says, as if hiding a state secret. He looks around to confirm no one else is watching.

Each episode of “Three Great Emperors” will be themed on a dish, with Baek traveling across the country to scout for chefs that have the best recipes, producers said. The shortlisted three will try to create the version that earns the highest scores from spectators in studio. Despite similarities to the popular U.S. show “The Iron Chef,” “Three Great Emperors” isn’t about who wins, producer Yoo Yun-cheol said. “It’s about teaching the audience different ways of cooking and savoring a dish.”

Each dish featured on “Three Great Emperors” will be everyday fare because it’s “extremely difficult” to convey taste and aroma through TV, said Lee Chang-tae, head of the network’s entertainment department. “It’s the cooking show viewers will most relate with,” he said. “Three Great Emperors” is one of many shows following the trend started on AfreecaTV, a local peer-to-peer video streaming website, by a woman who goes by the alias “The Diva.” She amassed hundreds of thousands of subscribers by eating three to four servings of food in one sitting.

That idea was first picked up by tvN and JTBC, whose respective shows now boast viewing rates of 14.2 percent and 8.2 percent — a sizeable audience for cable channels. SBS is hardly the only network trying to get a piece of the pie. TV Chosun, a cable network, announced on Wednesday plans to roll out a show in which two chefs will share “easy” recipes. Even Girls’ Generation, the poster child of Korean idol groups, has dabbled in with a segment featuring member Yoona documenting her cooking lessons on its reality show “Channel Girls’ Generation.”

The mushrooming meokbang-sphere isn’t surprising; South Koreans are famous for being early adopters. From a producer’s point of view, meokbang is also easy because it doesn’t require much overhead cost and product placement attracts sponsors. Kim Ji-hyoung, a public relations manager at CJ E&M Corp., one of meokbang’s largest sponsors, said the craze over “broadcast eating” seems as though it’s here to stay. “There hasn’t been another trend to replace it,” she said. “Every channel has a meokbang because that’s what the viewers want.”


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