Things change. That is a constant of the universe. It seems idol groups are not immune to it.

SNH48 Group is experiencing its own dose of soul searching this year regarding both of its franchises (SHY48 and CKG48). This, coupled with the recent emergence of a significant competitor in Rocket Girls and similar groups, prompts the organization to rethink itself in order to remain the dominant girl group.

Some of these changes are already on the way and proving to be disruptive.

Group reorganization

When SNH48 Group opened up ticket sales for their 2019 Best50 Request Time event on November 30th it came with a bitter pill for some fans: the announcement of a major reorganization of the entire group.

The statement implied a significant group-wide shuffle but also two other important points:

Multi-Mode Strategy: It was indicated the group would be moving from a single-mode (the current 48 system inherited from Japan) to a multi-mode model where the focus would be put on top girls and subunits. The idea is to have the bulk of the promotion centered around a smaller number of girls so that they can become more easily recognizable from the general public.

Expect more subunits (one is already in the process of being created at the Best50) and more activities with subgroups of members. An example of that is the new “Now and Forever” EP which is the first one ever released by SNH48 that did not feature a full team (except for formal subunits).

More focus on other lines of business: STAR48 has been having increasing success with its movie production subsidiary and is making significant investments in new productions since the very well received “Legend of Yun Xi” earlier this year.

STAR48 plans to continue pushing in that direction in order to diversify its sources of revenues in the face of election sales already showing signs of soon reaching a plateau.

These statements seem to indicate that STAR48 is concerned by the recent growth of short-term groups like Rocket Girls (managed by Tencent) that get massive exposure and did generate huge revenues.

Signs point to SNH48 Group moving more to an hybrid between the 48 style and the Kpop styles of management where SNH48, BEJ48, and GNZ48 would become the anchors to train idols and create fanbases with the top girls being “promoted” to subunits or subgroups that would get the bulk of the attention.

End of the franchises?

The “Now and Forever” EP single only included members of SNH48, BEJ48, and GNZ48 (Click to enlarge)

When STAR48 founded BEJ48 and GNZ48 (its first two sister groups), they were setup as extensions of SNH48. They would operate seperately but still under control of the larger organization.

SHY48 (and later CKG48) were setup in a totally different way. STAR48 continued to maintain creative control and management of the talent but the groups themselves were franchisesWhat is a franchise?A franchise is a joint venture between a franchiser and a franchisee. The franchiser is the original or existing business which sells the right to use its name and idea. Source: Wikipedia.

Both of those sister groups were tied to real estate developers in their respective regions who wanted to use 48 Group theaters as project anchors in shopping complexes. Both were made possible by promises, among other things, of increased traffic in their venues in exchange for low (or no) rents. Sadly, both groups have not managed to build audiences and have been plagued with low sales and empty theaters.

SHY48CKG48
In Shenyang, the problem is mostly economic. The idol fan base is very small as younger people tend to leave this area that is in recession in favour of the larger cities like Beijing or Shanghai. This leaves few people with the kind of disposable income required to sustain a team… much less two or three.

SHY48 was able to survive over the last two years mostly because of a deal where their theater and the living space for their dorm essentially came rent free (as they do not have their own buildings like SNH48). However, that changed recently and the group ended up having to give up one floor of their dorm because of the rent issue which included their cafeteria.

Their low attendance levels at the theater also mean they will be unable to pay the rent for what is a very large space compared to what is used by some other groups.
While younger than SHY48, the Chongqing sister group also suffers from low attendance rates at their theater shows and poor sales despite STAR48 agreeing to have one of its Vice-presidents (the General Manager of GNZ48) take over operations.

Fans have complained of poor management, lack of talent in the members, and overall weak stage performances. The long absence of Liu JiongRan who had transferred to the group from SNH48 did not help matters.

Members had recently been informed that, unless fans started showing up at the theater, the group’s future was in question.

Based on statements from members and a number of recent events, it is expected that both these sister groups would no longer exist once the reorganization has taken place. There is still doubt as to what will happen however. The groups might simply disband but there have also been rumours of merging with BEJ48 and GNZ48 or even for one to become a touring group (similar to what AKB48 Team 8 does in Japan).

What exactly happens to the members of both groups is unclear. Some have already been transferred to BEJ48 and SNH48 (unofficially) and it is expected that the most popular girls (the ones generating the most revenue) will also be transferred during the impending shuffle. As for the rest, some might be offered a chance to join other groups as full members or trainees but the majority will probably be let go.

The Xingmeng Theaters in Chongqing and Shenyang will effectively cease operations after the stages of December 22nd and 23rd.

If STAR48 ever opens new sister groups they are unlikely to be franchises again and they will limit themselves to untapped proven idol markets like ChengDu or Shenzhen.

What does the future look like?

Some will no doubt start screaming that SNH48 Group is doomed because they are closing down 2 highly unprofitable franchises but they forget that other groups (including AKB48 in Japan) have also gone through similar experiences and are still going strong today.

Graduation anxiety: STAR48 also knows the drop in popularity AKB48 suffered once it started losing its first two generations and can see the contracts of its own first two gens ending in less than two years.

STAR48 has to face the fact that the idol culture that is evolving in China is much closer in style to Kpop than it ever will be to the 48 system. If it does not adapt to that trend, they take the risk of being seen as “obsolete” very quickly and lose their place as the dominant female idol group in the country.

STAR48 probably still has some surprises up its sleeves for January 19th but we can make some educated guesses as to where we are going now.

Growth of subunits: Expect to see several more subunits being formed over the coming months. Each will probably have a different style (just like SEN7ES is Kpop and HO2 more R&B) to cater to different audiences and challenge opponents on multiple fronts.

The theater groups will become training grounds for these subunits with a greater focus on performance.

Less emphasis on the election: As subgroups and subunits become the norm, the focus will shift away from the election format. The election as an event will still remain but it will not have the same level of importance for the organization.

Popular members away from theaters: Members will get more involved outside the groups either in subunits or individually for movie/drama productions and other activities. We already see members essentially vanish for months as they are busy filming. This will become the norm with key members only making rare appearances in theaters.

Streamlined management: As STAR48 becomes more integrated, it will streamline various redundant functions (videography, photography, costumes…) and move to a shared services model except for the staff directly involved in the running of individual theaters.

Elimination system: GNZ48 introduced a system with its latest batch of trainees where they get audited at regular intervals. These audits evaluate their performance skills as well as their ability to build a fan base (e.g. increase the revenue they generate). If members fail to show improvement or reach certain thresholds, they will be dismissed from the group or, like what happened during the 2018 Team Shuffle, demoted. This will be expanded to all groups.

We don’t really know for sure where STAR48 is going but we do know that the SNH48 Group of January 20th will be significantly different than the one we have today.

Will it be for the better? That remains to be seen but we know the group isn’t going anywhere.