On paper, The Debut: Dream Academy sounded like a slam dunk for HYBE Labels and Geffen Records: Viewers around the world would get to vote for their favorite contestants in a competition to create an international girl group created in the HYBE K-pop system. The series received a lavish press conference and an art film to emphasize that this was an event and money was no object. HYBE and Geffen wanted to assure the public that this was the beginning of something huge, and fans were going to be hooked on it. However, as of the time of this writing… people do not appear to be hooked on Dream Academy. They mostly seem to be confused by it. If anything, the recent conclusion of JYP Entertainment’s A2K and the creation of VCHA only make The Debut: Dream Academy seem like a potential mistake.
This is not a situation that most people expected. In fact, initially, there was a public expectation that The Debut: Dream Academy would command much more attention than A2K, which was a (then-ongoing) series from JYP and Republic Records to create a North American pop group created in the JYP system. Prior to the premiere of Dream Academy, there was a popular sentiment that, to quote one optimistic internet commenter describing it, “This is like a more expensive worldwide version of JYP’s A2K. :D” That was what the series sounded like — until it was actually released.
A2K Was Simple and Effective Television
Let’s pause for a moment to consider what its competition, A2K, was. For the most part, A2K was a conventional television series — despite premiering straight to YouTube — and it was made on a sensible budget. The first three episodes were a highly conventional “national audition” round, with the JYP team (and J.Y. Park himself) traveling to major US cities to try out thousands of girls. These episodes adopted a format almost identical to what American Idol had established more than 20 years ago, except that they wisely chose to only showcase the successful auditions. The 11 contestants that passed the initial audition moved on to a Los Angeles boot camp for the next round of the competition, which involved multiple different challenges and stretched on all the way to episode 15.
The sets for the first 15 episodes of A2K were economically constructed — often simple backdrops with an “A2K” logo in a nondescript LA studio. One could honestly describe it as a bit hokey and simple, albeit perhaps in an endearing way. It wasn’t until the final boot camp set in South Korea (episodes 16 – 22) that JYP made full use of its empire and iconic Korean locations to add a sense of real budget to the series.
However, the point was that the budget of A2K didn’t matter. Seemingly more than one million people tuned in for all 22 episodes of the series, and it was because they were invested in the journeys of the individual girls competing. Home viewers had no voting power, (JYP and Republic Records exclusively made these decisions.) but it was heartbreaking when contestants were eliminated. And none of these feelings were by accident. Because A2K followed a conventional television format, it was easy and natural for viewers to build this critical emotional connection with the girls. And then when the girl group VCHA predebuted immediately following the end of A2K, on September 22, 2023, it created an explosion of excitement.
Three days after release, the VCHA music video for “Y.O.Universe” has garnered 3.5 million views, which is not bad at all for a video from a brand new, English-singing group that was released as a complete surprise. (Let’s not forget that the name “VCHA” was not even revealed to the public until the very end of A2K episode 22!) The group isn’t exactly threatening to dethrone Taylor Swift in public attention right now, but they’re in a fantastic position to start growing for their full debut. Considering their predebut coincided with an introductory Teen Vogue interview, it stands to reason that VCHA’s full debut will involve a pretty aggressive North American media takeover, particularly with Republic Records involved. For a fan, it’s exciting just to contemplate.
But in a nutshell, JYP and Republic Records didn’t do anything extravagant or experimental with A2K as a series — and they didn’t have to. A2K did exactly what it promised to do: create a North American JYP girl group — and it did so in a way that garnered intense support for the final VCHA members. Equally importantly, A2K episodes were released on a reliable schedule, airing every Monday and Thursday at 9:00 p.m. ET without fail. Even the show’s two-part finale was announced weeks in advance so fans wouldn’t miss a special episode that premiered on a Wednesday.
The Debut: Dream Academy Is More Unconventional Than A2K
As viewers know by now, The Debut: Dream Academy has not taken the conventional television format that A2K used. In fact, the format of the show is so unconventional that fans can’t even track all of its content across one platform: The major performances appear on the main HYBE Labels YouTube channel, while everything else, even including the mission rules and contestant eliminations, appear on the lesser-seen HYBE Labels + YouTube channel. Making things even more confusing, there is a dedicated The Debut: Dream Academy YouTube channel that only exists to aggregate relevant content from the two HYBE channels. Meanwhile, short-form content featuring the contestants is located on TikTok and YouTube Shorts on HYBE Labels +, and sometimes those videos are important to voting results — but also sometimes not.
Speaking of which, the brunt of voting for the series occurs exclusively through Weverse, an app that is popular in South Korea but not quite as familiar to the rest of the world yet. Some speculate that Korean trainees Nayoung and Yoonchae received so many votes in Mission 1 in part because there may have been a disproportionate number of votes cast by Koreans. (It must be emphasized that this is only speculation though.) By restricting voting to the Weverse app, it is ensuring only people willing to create a Weverse account will get to vote, which effectively restricts The Debut: Dream Academy voting to a more hardcore audience. However, if the whole point of the series is to create an international pop group, it seems like a bad idea to limit voting to this small, hardcore segment.
HYBE has had to release convoluted release schedule graphics on social media in order to explain when and where all content for The Debut: Dream Academy will drop. Exacerbating the problems is that every piece of The Debut: Dream Academy content is released piecemeal with little surrounding context. Vlogs as short as 60-90 seconds are mostly all viewers have gotten of each HYBE trainee’s personality so far, so there genuinely haven’t been many great opportunities to get to know them and invest in them emotionally. It is the polar opposite of A2K in that respect.
It’s tempting to say that HYBE and Geffen simply went too far in trying to “break the mold” with the format of The Debut: Dream Academy — to attempt something more “modern” and “Gen Z” than the reliable but maybe old-fashioned format of A2K. However, the truth may be more complicated and cynical than that. When this series was first announced, HYBE and Geffen confirmed that this competition would get a Netflix documentary, to release in 2024. More specifically, the documentary will “delve into the journey to global stardom while including insight into the extensive training and development program from HYBE and Geffen Records.” As such, it sounds like all of the human connection that fans desperately crave is actually just being withheld for the Netflix documentary, which will air after the final lineup of the girl group has already been announced.
Maybe It Won’t Matter, Thanks to Netflix
As such, one could say that HYBE and Geffen are trying to have their cake and eat it too: HYBE wants to make fans feel involved in the process of creating this new girl group, but it wants Netflix to be the massive international platform that actually gets the world to care about the group. There are pronounced pros and cons to this approach.
On one hand, fans don’t actually know to what extent their voting will truly matter yet. To date, fan voting has given some top-ranked contestants immunity from elimination, which is certainly valuable. However, how much will voting actually matter for the final mission that decides the group composition? Notably, HYBE and Belift Lab reality competition R U Next? had a massive audience-voting component throughout the length of the series, but in the end, audience voting only had an impact (and not a huge impact) on two out of the six members that were selected to become the group I’LL-IT. If history repeats itself and fan voting only has a minor effect on the final lineup of the girl group created from The Debut: Dream Academy, the backlash will likely be even more pronounced than in the R U Next? finale. It would make the entire series feel more like a marketing ploy (which, of course, it is, to an extent) than anything that fans actually helped to shape.
On the other hand, the value of Netflix to showcase this new group to the world cannot be underestimated. Despite so much competition, Netflix is still the largest streaming service in the world, with the capability to translate its content into so many different languages. It can place HYBE content front and center on its service in a way that would be glossed over by the average person if it were put on YouTube instead. Put another way, the Netflix documentary for Dream Academy has so much potential to reach a massive audience that it might be able to trivialize any or all damage done by the sloppy release of The Debut: Dream Academy.
One need only consider the Netflix K-pop documentary Blackpink: Light Up the Sky. Upon its release, according to streaming analytics company FlixPatrol, the documentary was the most-watched movie on Netflix in 28 countries and regions, (It ranked fifth in the US.) finishing in second place overall behind Hubie Halloween. In Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand, it was the most-watched documentary on Netflix in 2020. While the Netflix documentary for Dream Academy is not necessarily as likely to receive as much attention as a documentary for an already enormously successful K-pop group, the point stands that Netflix can provide a huge international platform that isn’t really available to the same extent anywhere else.
A2K Is a Success Right Now, While Dream Academy Might Be a Success Much Later
As a YouTube / Weverse / TikTok series, The Debut: Dream Academy is a confusingly conceived mess, often devoid of emotional stakes, and keeping up with all of its content genuinely feels like homework. More concerning still is the looming worry that fan voting might not actually matter much in the final girl group composition. And yet — if the 2024 Netflix documentary is compelling enough and properly marketed, it might be able to singlehandedly pardon many of the egregious mistakes HYBE and/or Geffen Records have made to this point.
Right now though, 2024 still feels far away. Right now, we are sitting on the recent conclusion of A2K, a straightforward series that captured the hearts of more than a million people and got them excited for the instant predebut of VCHA. It’s hard to look at The Debut: Dream Academy with any enthusiasm after watching A2K, and it’s unfortunate that the Netflix documentary seems to be both the cause of and solution to HYBE and Geffen’s problems.
In the end, it’s possible that none of these things will really matter. Maybe everything will come out in the wash, and both VCHA and the final Dream Academy group will settle into a comfortable level of success regardless of their origins. JYP and HYBE are both quite powerful companies with quite powerful partners, after all. But at the least, A2K and The Debut: Dream Academy should be studied by K-pop companies and their international partners for how and how not to create an international reality competition.