By Kim Tong-hyung
Children are the hottest commodities on Korean television. Feel free to be discomforted about this, critics say.
MBC, which increasingly finds its strength in low-aiming entertainment rather than the hard-hitting journalism it used to be reputed for, is beaming over ''Dad, Where Are We Going?'' clearly the most successful new show of the year on Korean television.
Dad, which groups a number of male celebrities and their children on humorous camping missions, first aired in January and just needed a few weeks to cement itself as the ratings king of the Sunday primetime slot.
Now, rival networks are ― of course ― scrambling to put up me-too products.
KBS is now pushing ''Superman Came Back,'' which takes the camera into the homes of comedian Lee Hui-jae, combat sports athlete Choo Sung-hun, singer Lee Hyun-hoo and actor Jang Hyun-sung and broadcasts their interactions with their children, a sort of a documentary that really isn't.
SBS attempts to innovate by pairing a grandpa with kids. In the soon-to-debut ''Oh My Baby,'' veteran actor Im Hyun-sik will be left to look after the babies of his daughter and son-in-law, all four of them.
The creators of these shows are touting their products as some indicator of social progress, stressing that they are pairing male stars with children and testing them with childcare duties traditionally covered by women.
Cutting through the PR nonsense, it's difficult not to question whether the networks are exploiting children for viewership as experts raise concerns about the level of stress the young stars are exposed to.
Children are magnets for living room eyeballs because they're cute. But in the dizzying world that is television, the effectiveness of cuteness lasts as long as last month's milk.
For the first few weeks of Dad, it was just enough to show the famous fathers and their sons and daughters making and eating camping food. Now, the creators of the show are under greater pressure to stimulate.
In one episode, the children and their fathers are sent to an uninhabited island where they spend a night in the aim of ''survival training'' in the wild. Why a preschool-aged, 21st-century kid would need such training is anyone's guess.
The popularity of the show itself has had its side effects. Eight-year-old Yoon Hoo, who appears on Dad with his singer father Yoon Min-soo, recently found himself becoming a target of Internet hatred.
Kim Yeo-ra, a researcher at the National Assembly Research Service, says that the lack of legal protection for children and under-aged teenagers working in television could become a glaring problem, if it's not already.
While provision No. 45 of the country's broadcasting evaluation law requires broadcasters to protect children and teenagers appearing on their shows, this is worse than useless because it doesn't specify in anyway how they should be protected.
''Foreign broadcasters like the BBC have strict regulations regarding children working in broadcasting, such as the protection of their personal information, limitations on their working hours and their access to education,'' Kim said.
''Korea needs a legal framework that protects the rights of children in television to ensure they aren't exposed to bad working conditions, receive proper education and aren't exposed excessively in the media.''