South Korea: Broadcasting Power Struggle Bruises Korean Viewers

When two giants fight, it is usually an innocent bystander who gets most hurt. That is exactly what’s happening in South Korea’s broadcasting field, with Korean viewers being the bystanders. Some of the paid-advertisements on cable television will be aired as black screens starting from October. As two major broadcasting powers–the terrestrial networks and the cable ones–began waging a huge battle against each other, over the transmission of terrestrial contents in cable channels, Korean viewers will likely become the biggest victims.

In South Korea, the major three terrestrial channels (KBS, MBC and SBS) are more than just the prominent players in the broadcasting industry. The invincible brand names of KBS, MBC ,and SBS have a certain authority over the Korean public. These three channels operate and run themselves like an independent state; often they produce, program and transmit their own contents without getting other company’s help. The cable channels, however, are often treated as minor, unreliable and tawdry sources, although the sheer number of cable viewers surpasses 15 million and it is believed that 70 percent of Koreans watch programs via one of the SOs (system operators). People's underestimation on the cable may due to a constant interruption of ads during the running time, as most cable channels suffer from the shortage of revenue and depend heavily on ad sales.

The association of cable networks decided yesterday to remove the ads that come with terrestrial content, beginning next month. It is a preparatory step before the assocation totally cuts off  terrestrial contents from their channels, which is what they are threatening to do. The decision was a part of disgruntled reaction to last December's court decision which ruled in favor of the terrestrial networks over cable ones. The court judged the cable's transmission of terrestrial contents without paying for the cost as illegal. To outsiders, it may seem perfectly normal to buy contents before transmitting them, but it is much complicated than as it looks.

Though this issue is closely related to their everyday lives, lots of Koreans did not fully comprehend the meaning of the news at first, mainly due to all the jargon and professional terms used in new reports. Netizen: Son Su-chul made a quick summary of the controversy right below one news report for everyone to see: ‘No one has done right’. He later explained that the terrestrial networks want to continue taking advantage of the cable’s situation and passed the responsibility of improving the transmission quality onto the cable. But, at the same time, terrestrial networks began to look after their share of the contents.  The cable is blackmailing the terrestrial networks, saying they will dismiss them from their channels if they don’t allow them to use the content for free.

So, the bottom line is, till one of those broadcasting bullies back off from the standoff, Korean viewers have to install antennas or buy another cable package from another system operator to watch their favorite programs. The news provoked varied responses. In case of Jusk2, the blogger uploaded a video of how to make an antenna out of a metal coat hanger and added:

지상파 방송을 보기 위해서는 안테나 달아야 하는데. 지상파 방송측에서는 디지털 방송의 전파 커버리지가 80-90 % 넘었다고 하지만 제가 사는 곳을 포함해서 아직까지도 디지털 방송이 안나오는 것은 물론 대부분의 케이블 TV시청자들이 이런 상황을 잘 모르고 계시고 있어서 큰 문제가 될 것 같습니다.

You have to install an antenna to watch the terrestrials. The terrestrial networks claim that their digital coverage rate is over 80-90 percent, but that is not how I perceived the reality. In where I live, there are many households unreached by digital TV transmission. What concerns me is that most of the cable viewers are not aware of the situation – which is quite problematic.

Ys10310, who introduced herself as a helpless 35 year old housewife, expressed strong resistance toward a possible disadvantage this shift may bring. As a way of defending her rights as a consumer, she quickly downloaded the terms and agreements from her cable’s website, before the company makes any alternation.

상담원이 그런다. 지상파가 송출되지 않는 사태는 일어나지 않을 것이다. 그렇기 때문에 그에 대한 위약금 부분이나 해지 부분에 있어 누구의 책임 소재는 아직 정해진 바가 없다. 라는 것이다…우리를 볼모로 이러한 싸움을 한다는 것 자체가 너무 어이없고 황당하기 그지없다.

The cable’s phone operator answered me that there will not be a situation the cable stops transmitting terrestrial contents, but added that they have not settled on the liability (on whose responsibility it is when the contract is broken) and the penalty fee in quitting the cable contract…The cable is starting a battle with terrestrials with holding us customers as hostages- it is absurd.

Many Koreans feel tired just by looking at this muddy stalemate. Blogger Kakdugi said that even though protecting the copyrights of terrestrials’ contents is totally understandable, the free promotional effect of the cable’s coverage is hard to ignore.

솔직히 광고 수익을 챙기면서, 지상파 방송사에 저작권료를 지불하지 않는 것도 문제는 있다. 어찌됐든 지상파 방송사에서 제작비를 들여서 만드는 프로그램이고…그런데 또 어떻게 생각하면, 케이블 TV에서 재방송을 보고, 전혀 보지 않고 있던 드라마에 관심을 가지거나, 그래서 본방송을 챙겨보는 경우도 많이 있긴 할 것이다…많은 사람들이 보고, 입에 오르내릴수록 시청률도 올라갈 것이고, 그렇게 시청률이 올라가게 되면 광고 수익도 조금 더 늘어날 것이기 때문이다…적절한 선에서 타협했으면 좋겠다.

I do acknowledge the seriousness of the cable’s usage of terrestrial’s contents for free and selling ads on the programs. No matter what, the contents were made by terrestrials with their revenue… But then again, there are a considerable number of viewers who got interested in terrestrial’s soap operas after watching the re-runs of those from the cable channels and started watching those from terrestrial channels…A program’s rating will surely go up when the content is exposed to more viewers and more people talk about it, and the ad sales will follow…I want two sides to make a compromise on certain level.

A media-expert blogger like Medium focused on the pictures behind the scene. The cable at first was obliged to carry the terrestrial contents as a way of protecting the terrestrials from pure lucrative business of the cable television. And the win-win practice was kept solid till now before the market shares got shifted.

KBS2와 MBC, SBS 채널의 케이블TV 송출은 어떤 근거도 없이 지상파방송사와 케이블사업자 사이에 묵인되어 왔다. 양측 모두 혜택을 누릴 수 있기 때문이다. 지상파방송은 난시청 해소의 부담을 덜면서 시청권역을 확대하는 효과를 누릴 수 있었다. 소수의 난시청 가구를 위해 비용을 들이지 않아도 되었으며, 시청권역이 확대됨에 따라 간접적으로 광고수익이 증가하는 효과를 기대할 수 있었다. 케이블TV는 추가비용을 들이지 않고 양질의 프로그램을 확보할 수 있었다. 케이블 채널의 시청률은 1%만 넘으면 대단한 축에 드는데 비해, 지상파방송의 인기 프로그램은 시청률이 30%를 넘나든다. 최고의 인기 콘텐츠를 ‘공짜’로 확보할 수 있었던 것이다. 이러한 양측의 암묵적 거래(?)와 묵인은 일정한 조건 아래서 가능했다.

The transmission of KBS2, MBC and SBS channels from the cable had been tacitly approved by both terrestrial networks and the cable company, but without any (legal) grounds to it. Both sides have benefited from the deal. The terrestrials can expand its coverage zone without bearing the burden of solving the weak broadcasting signal problem in some area.[note: it was done by cable companies] It did not spent money on setting up facilities for the handful of houses with weak signals. Moreover, as the coverage zone expanded, its ad sales rose… In case of cable channels, they could secure quality contents without paying for those. While there is hardly any cable content higher than 1 percent in ratings, a popular program from terrestrials often surpasses 30 percent in ratings. From the deal, the cable can stabilize a supply of hottest contents at zero cost.

그런데, 뉴미디어가 등장하고 방송시장에 경쟁이 심화되면서 상황이 바뀌기 시작했다. 우선, 지상파방송의 경영상황이 점차 악화되기 시작했다. 광고매출이 정체되고 막대한 규모의 당기순손실이 발생하기도 했다. 2002년 매체광고시장 전체에서 37.7%를 차지했던 지상파방송은 2009년 23.0%까지 꾸준히 감소했다. 반면, 같은 기간 케이블TV는 3.6%에서 10.7%로 증가했고, 인터넷 광고는 2.9%에서 17.1%로 급격히 성장했다. 이렇게 어려워지는 살림에 프로그램을 그냥 갖다 쓰게 할 수는 없었다.

But once the new media emerged and the competition between broadcasting stations got stiffen, the terrestrials were financially hit hard. The ad sales got sluggish and they began to see huge net losses. The terrestrials used to take up to 37.7 percent in ad markets, but recently they dropped to 23 percent in market share. The cable, in contrast, rose from 3.6 percent to 10.7 percent and on the internet ad market, it rose from 2.9 to 17.1 percent. The terrestrials, under this tightening situation, could no longer allow the cable to use their contents without paying.

There is no sign of conflict dying out, and Korean people's frustration from the uncertainty is growing larger and larger.

1 comment

  • Karsten Black

    Here’s an idea. Disconnect your terrestrial or cable, whichever it is. It is only brainwashing you and stealing your valuable time. I haven’t watched either for more than 10 years. Helps you to wake up and smell reality. And that reality is that the two of them are fight over who gets more money for manipulating you into the consumerist lifestyle. Hmmm…don’t think I want to have anything to do with either of them.

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