Opinion: The “Running Man” Saga & Viewer Ratings

This was a post I had meant to write before I left for my holidays, but never got around to it. Avid watchers of Korean TV would know that SBS’ Running Man show was embroiled in a saga where the cast were unknowingly and “unfairly” fired by their producers without their knowledge or discussion. While eventually, the producers apologized and the cast “accepted” the apology, it sparked a debate as to the show’s future due to the commitments and health of the cast members. At one stage, we were ready to farewell Running Man with the show to end at the end of February – just as I was to arrive in Seoul. Instead, at the eleventh-hour, SBS had saved the show with a plan to continue and revitalize it, and with the cast members committing to filming going forward.

Why Running Man?

I’ve watched a lot of Korean TV. I regularly follow Running Man, We Got Married, I Live Alone, Real Men (or Real Man) and Produce 101. I’ve also watched all of Invincible Youth (1 and 2), various episodes of Star Golden Bell, One Fine Day, Hello Baby, Infinite Challenge, Knowing Brother, Battle Trip, Happy Together, Weekly Idol and more. I find it all rather interesting because it’s often fairly fast-paced, somewhat rooted in reality and emotionally intense at times. It’s often a bonus when you get to see your favourite Kpop bands as guests.

Running Man appealed to me because it was an “urban action reality” show. Initially, it was more boring with some games “indoors” and missions, but in its mid-life, it was about pulling name tags in various picturesque places in South Korea. It was like being on holiday, while watching the latest Korean stars go to battle every week, and doing a bit of a cross-promotion at the same time. Apparently, the locals don’t love the show so much, but as a foreigner, it was quite interesting to get holiday ideas just by watching the show and learn a little of their humour and language. It also introduced me to the popular things at any given time – be it Kpop bands or actors from dramas.

When the whole saga started, it was a bit of a shock and I was a little disappointed. Gary had left the group to pursue his own career and life, so that had taken away the Monday Couple, along with the loyalty of the group of 7. It only seemed a matter of time for it to fall apart – as most Kpop bands often do when faced with the same situation. When they announced the show would be cancelled in February, I (and many others) had prepared our hearts to let it go. I had naturally assumed that the show, even though remarkably successful, had run its course and was to be replaced due to its dwindling ratings. When they reversed the decision, the feeling wasn’t that of delight, but more of confusion – it would not be the same after this.

The Lifecycle of a Show in Ratings

I thought the show would have finished in February, just as I visited South Korea for the first time. As a result of trying to think of a fitting tribute, I wanted to better understand the predicament SBS was under, and to celebrate and honour Running Man’s achievements. As part of that, I noticed that ratings data had been posted for many shows on the Wikipedia page, so I decided to plot the data and see how things correlate.

The popularity of Running Man didn’t seem to be certain – the first few episodes were relatively unremarkable, but then it gained a little traction before falling back. The golden period was from Episode 50 to 144, a period of 94 weeks where the popularity picked up and stayed up near 20-25%. Since then, it has not regained the same level of popularity. The loss of PD Kim Joo-hyung seems to have started a slow decline, and with the departure of Director Jo Hyo-Jin, a pick-up was followed by a further decline. The loss of PD Im Hyung-taek and FD Go Dong-Wan seems to have had negligible impact, with the show sitting with ratings hear when it started since November 2015. It seems that compared with the past, the show just couldn’t sustain its popularity.

In fact, if we compare it to the show that preceded Running Man, which was Family Outing (and Family Outing 2), it seems that Family Outing did very well. The second season, however, was a complete screw-up and was taken off the air rather quickly and replaced with Running Man. In light of this, it seems that Running Man is only doing as well as the ill-fated Family Outing 2, and SBS’ desire to have a well-rated Sunday show seems reasonable.

While ignoring complexities such as air-dates and time-slots, I decided to compare the data to other very popular and consistently highly-rated shows on Korean TV. Here, we can see how Infinite Challenge has faired – it has had a high peak early in its life after a short introductory period, and settled down. Post hiatus, their ratings are a little lower – but of note is that their ratings are consistently above Running Man for the most part.

2 Days 1 Night also seems to have fared pretty well, with another “hump” in its ratings, falling back to an “average” level. Interestingly, both Running Man and 2 Days 1 Night experienced a fall in ratings about March 2013, but since then, their fortunes have diverged, with 2 Days 1 Night making a recovery, possibly at the expense of Running Man.

Law of the Jungle is another popular show – it seems to have maintained a fairly steady ratings value – not as much of an early peak, but again, emphasizes the decline of Running Man.

Of course, there are other shows too, so lets just plot the lot, with some other shows I could get ratings data for (Flower Crew, Fantastic Duo, My Ugly Duckling)

When plotted over time, it seems that many shows are stable with 2 days 1 night actually having a notable increase. Newcomer shows are not doing too badly, which may be taking away viewership from our beloved shows.

When plotted by episode number, it seems that the lifecycle of a show is somewhat shown – the shows peak early in their life although some earlier than others, then settle down or decline. It seems Running Man is well into “fading out”, sadly.

The Best and the Worst of Running Man

This leads me to ask the question – just what are the best and worst episodes (up till January 2017). I decided to sort the list of ratings and correlate them with the guests that appeared on the show.

Ep    Rating    Guests
133    21.0%    Han Hye-jin, Lee Dong-wook (CN Special Pt.1)
119    20.9%    Choo Shin-soo, Jin Se-yeon, Ryu Hyun-jin
120    20.7%    Lee Seung-gi, Park Shin-hye (Pt.1)
97     20.4%    Park Ji-sung, IU, Jong Tae-se (Football Special Pt.3)
131    20.4%    Choo Sung-hoon, Lee Si-young
136    20.4%    Han Hye-jin, Lee Dong-wook (VN Special)
103    20.2%    Noh Sa-yeon, Shin Se-kyung, Yoo Jun-sang
77     20.1%    Ji Jin-hee, Joo Sang-wook, Kim Sung-soo, Lee Chun-hee, IU (Pt.2)
123    20.0%    Go Soo, Han Hyo-joo
109    19.9%    Park Tae-hwan, Son Yeon-jae
110    19.9%    Park Tae-hwan
127    19.9%    Choi Ji-woo, Jung Yong-hwa, Lee Jong-hyun, Lee Gi-kwang, Simon Dominic
118    19.6%    Choi Min-soo (Grasshopper Hunting Special)
138    19.6%    Kim Soo-ro, Kim Woo-bin, Lee Jong-hyun, Lee Jong-suk, Min Hyo-rin
95     19.5%    No guests (Football Special Pt.1)
106    19.5%    Han Ji-min
130    19.5%    No guests (Best of the Best Special)
111    19.4%    Im Ha-ryong, Son Byung-ho, Go Chang-suk, Shin Jung-geun, Lee Jong-won
117    19.4%    Yubin, Ji Sung, Suzy, Ji Jin-hee, Song Chang-ui
128    19.4%    Park Shin-yang, Uhm Ji-won
102    19.3%    Kin Soo-hyun
73     19.2%    Jung Yong-hwa, Lee Min-jung, Jackie Chan (CN Special Pt.2)
75     19.2%    Sohee, Hyorin, Sulli, Choi Si-won, Minho
96     19.2%    Park Ji-Sung, IU (Football Special Pt.2)
104    19.2%    Nichkhun, Eun-hyuk, Ham Eun-jeong, Jung Yong-hwa, Lee Joon, Si-wan, Yoon Doo-joon
135    19.1%    Choi Si-won, Jackie Chan
124    19.0%    No guests (?)
115    18.8%    U-Know Yun-ho, Moon Geun-young, Max Chang-min
76     18.6%    Ji Jin-Hee, Joo Sang-wook, Kin Sung-soo, Lee Chun-hee, IU
107    18.6%    Jang Shin-young, Kim Sang-joong, Gaeko
116    18.4%    Ji Jin-hee
Ep    Rating    Guests
277    4.8%    No guests
294    4.9%    Hye-ri, Nam Tae-hyun, Song Min-ho, Kim Hwan
311    5.3%    No guests
331    5.3%    Kim So-hyun
273    5.4%    Jung Chan-woo, Kim Tae-gyun, Hong Yoon-hwa, Kim Jung-hwan, Kim Tae-hwan, Lee Eun-hyung
292    5.4%    Hong Jin-ho, Jeong Jeong-ah, Kang Hyeon-soo, Lee Wan, Lizzy, Mikey, Nam Chang-hee, Park Myeong-ho, Wax
274    5.5%    Jo Jung-chi, Kim Kwang-kyu, Min Kyung-hoon, Niel, Park Soo-hong
286    5.5%    Kim Ga-yeon
314    5.5%    Hong Jong-hyun, Kang Ha-neul, Lee Joon-gi
12     5.6%    No guests
284    5.6%    Ji So-yun, Jong Tae-se, Park Ji-sung (Pt.2)
290    5.6%    Jung Il-woo, Lee Da-hae (Dubai Special Pt.1)
312    5.7%    Bada, Jo Jung-chi, Kim Kyung-ho, Yoo Byung-jae, Yoon Jong-shin
313    5.7%    Ahn Mun-sook, Ha Jae-sook, Kim Se-jeong, Lee Mi-joo, Noh Sa-yeon
285    5.9%    No guests (Best of the Best Special)
330    5.9%    Jennie, Jisoo, Lisa, Rosé
275    6.1%    Hani, Heechul, Leeteuk, Hong Jin-ho, Lim Yo-hwan
287    6.1%    Ahn Gil-kang, Kim Do-kyun, Kim Jo-han, Kim Won-hae, Lee Hong-ryul, Park Mi-sun, Yoo Yul
315    6.1%    Cha Seung-won, Kim Hwan, Lee Hye-jung
45     6.2%    Jang Hyuk (Pt.2)
212    6.2%    Ailee, Im Seul-ong, Ji Chang-wook, Kim Tae-woo, Lee Sung-jae, Skull, Song Eun-yi (Pt.2)
319    6.2%    Chae Soo-bin, Cho Jae-hyun, Lee Sun-bin & many other hunters (Yooames Bond Special)
325    6.2%    No guests
326    6.2%    Eun Ji-won, Jang Su-won, Kang Sung-hoon, Kim Jae-duc, Lee Jai-jin, Hwang Woo-seul-hye
328    6.2%    Chae-young, Da-hyun, Jeong-yeon, Ji-hyo, Mina, Momo, Na-yeon, Sana, Tzuyu
4      6.3%    Kim Shin-young, Se7en, Son Dam-bi
280    6.3%    No guests
276    6.4%    No guests
291    6.4%    No guests
323    6.4%    Jang Do-yeon, Kim Jun-hyun, Min-ho, Seo Ji-hye, Yang Se-chan

It seems that there is a good number of “No Guest” episodes in the lowest ranking list, however, even some presumably high profile names are there. For example, the episode featuring TWICE, Blackpink was in there, which seems unexpected given their popularity in general. Special episodes seem to feature somewhat equally in both lists – so it seems it is not a factor. Maybe competing shows on air at the same time have a greater influence.

Running Man Revival?

Recently, Running Man added comedian Yang Se-Chan and Actress Jeon So Min to the cast in an attempt to organically introduce new cast members and revive the show. While there hasn’t been many episodes yet, they have spent a lot of money flying the cast members around for their “Global Special” in the hopes of re-engaging with the audience. How well has it worked?

Sadly, judging by the ratings, probably not that well. The episode just before their introduction as permanent cast members became the lowest-rated episode of all time. Their reintroduction hasn’t yet reversed the fate of the show, which still hovers around the same level as before. Maybe there will be a second coming in the future, we can only hope.


It may be a bit premature to file this in the category of obituary, but at the point that the data was being analyzed and the post was being sketched up, we were all ready to farewell Running Man. While it isn’t dead yet, it’s certainly on life-support (if the ratings data is to be believed). It was an important show in introducing me to Korea and Korean culture, and I would really miss it when it finally goes off the air. For now, I’ll enjoy the fun while it lasts.

About lui_gough

I'm a bit of a nut for electronics, computing, photography, radio, satellite and other technical hobbies. Click for more about me!
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