Scores of red-hot South Korean singers and actors have passed through his hit comedy-variety show, but Running Man creator Cho Hyo Jin picks soccer player Park Ji Sung as his favourite guest star so far.

The former Manchester United midfielder may be cool on the field, but floored the show’s producers with his cheerfulness.

“Park Ji Sung has never been featured on a TV show before, and he is known for his poker-faced image,” recalls Cho, 38, of the Seoul-born captain of English club Queens Park Rangers. “But when he came on, it was a drastic change. He showed himself to be very cheerful and fun-loving.”

Off and running: Running Man creator speaks
Photo: Lianhe Wanbao

Here earlier last week for the Asia TV Forum & Market, the production director speaks about his popular programme in

rapid-fire Korean through a translator. On Tuesday, he gave a talk on what goes into the series’ success at the industry event at Marina Bay Sands’ expo and convention centre, held in conjunction with film trade event ScreenSingapore.

On the universal appeal of Running Man, which airs here on cable channel One on Fridays, he says: “Culturally, it’s easier for people to connect to because they understand this idea of ‘seeking the winner’.”

Described as “urban action variety”, the show pits a regular cast against one another or against a team of celebrity guests in challenges. Contestants have had to find golden pigs filled with money and collect as many Running Man balls as they can.

Broadcast on the Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS) network every Sunday in South Korea, the show is consistently watched by at least 14 per cent of viewers in the country. Since its debut in 2010, it has also aired in places such as Taiwan, Japan and Brunei.

Last year, it was named Most Outstanding Program – with cast member Yoo Jae Suk, 40, clinching Entertainer of the Year – at the SBS Entertainment Awards. Yoo also appears in Psy’s Gangnam Style video, where he sports a yellow suit.

Cho credits the show’s cast for part of its success. “It helps a lot with teamwork that they’re regulars,” he says. “Believe it or not, their character portrayal on the show is identical to what they’re like in real life. They do not trouble one another. And after filming, they keep in touch.”

Besides Yoo, the regulars are Gary Kang (real name Kang Hee Gun), 34; Haha (Ha Dong Hoon), 33; Ji Suk Jin, 46; Kim Jong Kook, 36; Lee Kwang Su, 27; and Song Ji Hyo, 31, the sole female in the group.

Still, Cho reveals with a laugh that they get a bit irritated with one another when they lose, and that is completely spontaneous. Emphasising that the show is not scripted, he adds that challenges are revealed to cast members and guests only right before filming starts.

Off and running: Running Man creator speaks
Photo: One

The producer adds that K-pop has helped to drive eyeballs to Running Man. The programme has received a lot of exposure, with K-pop stars from Super Junior, Girls’ Generation and other bands showing their playful side on it, keeping legions of their fans tuned in.

This strategy of having celebrity contestants, however, can also backfire. Criticism started gathering online in March this year when viewers felt that the group Big Bang were winning challenges too easily. The quintet took part in Running Man while promoting their Alive (2012) EP.

In defence, Cho says: “Obviously, stars who come on the show have a lot less experience, so more hints are given to them. However, they do not get an unfair advantage over the others. Fundamentally, that would not work out well.”

He laments that, as other variety shows join the ratings race, it is getting tougher for Running Man to sprint ahead of the pack and the logistics are getting more stressful. “When I first started, I used just three cameras,” says the producer, who has been in the business for at least 11 years. “These days, I use 70.”

Filming for each episode takes up the entire week, until right before its Sunday timeslot in South Korea. As every episode is different, the producer sometimes feels he has “reached the limit” for ideas. “To make matters worse, fans are quite critical,” he adds. “If we do something that’s slightly similar, we get abrasive comments.”

Help comes in the form of his colleagues, who offer suggestions. Sometimes, he uses them and adds a twist to the proceedings. For instance, he recalls, Haha once came up with the idea that everyone else should vote that Kim emerge the loser in one episode. Running with that, Cho decreed that the person who caught Kim would be declared the winner, setting off a hilarious hunt.

For now, Cho is jogging along on the faith that the ideas will just keep coming somehow. “If not, I’ll just have to quit,” he declares. With a laugh, he adds in English: “It’s very simple. No idea, no Running Man.”–STRAITSTIMES.COM

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on October 5, 2012.

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