The Yeouido Observer #002: New Kids on the Block

THE YEOUIDO OBSERVER #002: NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

It was like a reset button. Something you never really wanted to push, because it would set you back to the beginning, and you’d have to start from scratch, willing or not. Your first day at a new school always felt like the sociological equivalent of going back to factory settings, as you’d have to explain to dozens of new kids that yes, you were a petulant, misanthropic asshat hell bent on converting the entire universe to your elitist creed, but you didn’t bite. Except when you did, but that’s another story. Yet, I seriously doubt that the top brass of Korean television’s four newest channels felt anything along those lines, when they debuted in great (?) fashion last December. The first school day of a new channel would generally not be that big of a deal, particularly for those outside the country (since we are evil filibusters who don’t care about timeslots, ratings and whatnot, right?), but this situation was a little different. These debuts, in fact, marked the advent of cross media ownership in Korea, as all four channels are partly owned by major newspapers like the Joongang Ilbo (jTBC), Donga Ilbo (Channel A), Chosun Ilbo (Chosun TV) and Maeil Gyeongje (MBN). Oh, little detail? They’re all unabashedly conservative, pro 2MB junta, and are the by-product of new aggressive policies the ruling party set in motion right after winning the elections.

They are familiarly known as the 종편 (jongpyeon, short for 종합편성채널, general programming channel), a seemingly complicated denomination which actually hides a very simple meaning: the hybrids, as I will call them from here on in, are what on paper should be the best of both worlds – as they have the freedom to broadcast everything from sports to dramas, news and even movies (like network TV), but can also benefit from cable TV’s laissez faire approach to regulation and advertising. Reality, as you’ll soon discover, has rapidly turned into a whole different story, but this kind of compromise between two facets of the same medium which had been regulated in two completely different ways is revolutionary in itself, not to mention all the political and cultural implications their arrival onto the scene entails. It all started on July 22 of 2009, when a controversial amendment of the media law was railroaded by the national assembly, Korean style – you know, complete with brawls by men old enough to be grandfathers (and ladies, too!), committing the mortal sin of letting their shirt out of their trousers and getting all red in the face, while choking their fellow assemblymen with their funky neckties. This brought a number of major changes – some of which would come into effect right away, others in the near future. The major ones were as follows:

The system by which advertising on broadcast TV would have to go through a monitoring session before airing was eliminated – so any issue with controversial ads would be dealt with ex post by the broadcasting commission and not ex ante by an ad-hoc advertising agency, theoretically ridding the industry of that sense of quasi-censorship which pervaded this medium.

  • No broadcaster could control more than 30% of total market share, a clear attempt to avoid the formation of virtual monopolies, or a tentative to eradicate any existing ones.
  • Foreign entities could own up to a 20% share of cable PP (program providers) dealing with general programming (our hybrids), and 10% of news PP (channels like YTN).
  • A single chaebol or any other domestic business entity could own up to a 40% share of terrestrial broadcasting channels and general programming channels on cable.
  • Cross-ownership and management of System Operators (companies offering cable or satellite services) and terrestrial network broadcasting would be allowed.
  • Any newspaper (hello there! Big three right wing newspapers controlling 60% of the market!) could own up to 10% of terrestrial broadcasting channels and 30% of general programming channels on cable TV.

The reasons for pushing this amendment given by the ruling Grand National Party dealt with issues that had always been on their agenda, from bringing more foreign investment to increasing the competitiveness of the media sector at home and abroad – in short, the idea that Korean entertainment could become their new cash cow, allowing them to sell Hyundai Sonata’s alongside Winter ones. Those opposing the bill argued that while cross media ownership might be a worldwide trend, it’s also a lot more regulated in most foreign countries — exactly to avoid the formation of virtual monopolies in the long run, something that they argued this bill would paradoxically lead to. But perhaps the most striking criticism levied against this new policy was the idea that letting chaebol and predominant newspapers own significant shares of broadcasting entities wouldn’t necessarily increase diversity in the country – as it’s something that needs to be fostered through a cultural awakening, and not fancy words on a paper.

Whatever the case, after the bill passed the applications for the new general programming channels which would now be allowed began to be filed on November 2010. It’s not too surprising that only six candidates emerged, given how much money this kind of project would require up-front (we’re talking mid-nine figures in US$ every year), and how many years it would take to break even – since most cable channels like tvN take from 5 to 10 years, if they actually manage to recoup their investment at all. Other than the aforementioned four which passed the selection, the other two that couldn’t make the cut were a consortium of cable operators led by Taekwang Group (which owns cable platform T-cast, of E-Channel fame), and a venture named HUB, backed by The Korean Economy Daily. Although the latter was nothing more than a dark horse, Taekwang’s failure to make the final list – not to mention the fact that it received the lowest score – was a shock to the entire industry, defying all expectations. This is because not only had Taekwang vast experience in the sector matured through their T-cast line, but they could also muster impressive financial resources (including a planned budget of 1.2 trillion won, not exactly peanuts.)

Some in the media (and not only those slightly to the left like the Hankyoreh) suggested that the jury’s lack of impartiality was to blame, given the fact that of the 14 members seven were figures either directly involved with the ruling party or recommended by them. Again, cross media ownership per se wasn’t really the issue, but it was rather the fear that with the dreaded Cho-Joong-Dong (the aforementioned top three conservative newspapers, respectively Chosun, Joongang and Donga Ilbo) controlling the new hybrids, a good 90% of Korea’s broadcasting landscape would end up in the hands of the conservatives, either directly (through cross-ownership) or in a sneakingly indirect way, as the Lee Myung-Bak regime conveniently shoved yesmen like Kim Jae-Cheol and Kim In-Gyu (new presidents of MBC and KBS, respectively) down the license-fee-paying populace’s throat. Despite the advantage the conservative newspapers could benefit from at the start, the mood after the first press conferences announcing the imminent launch of the four channels was far from optimistic, with most industry insiders predicting that most hybrids would face serious problems in the near future. A poll by trade sheet PD Journal asking producers from network TV to choose the most likely channel to make it past its first 18 months unscathed saw jTBC win with an overwhelming majority (86.2%), and the rest trail far behind – with Chosun TV at 7.1%, Channel A at 3.5% and MBN at 3.2%. It was sort of a foregone conclusion, and not only because Joongang had approached the TV game a lot more aggressively from the very beginning.

They in fact are using jTBC as a natural continuation of the defunct Tongyang Broadcasting Channel, the same TBC which wrote important pages of Korea’s television history from the mid 1960’s all the way to the early 1980’s, when it was unceremoniously closed by the Jeon Du-Hwan regime. They also have an independent drama producing company among their affiliates, the same Dramahouse which has so far produced shows like 인수대비 (Queen Insoo), 발효가족 (Kimchi Family) and 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials). This is clearly a major point in their favor, because they can take a step closer to network TV’s in-house production system without having to necessarily shop around for other dramas like the other three hybrids. And what’s more, Dramahouse is far from a newcomer, as they also produced shows on network TV like 바람의 화원 (Painter of the Wind) and 공부의 신 (God of Study), and have an impressive array of producers and writers under contract – just to name a few, Ahn Pan-Seok, Hwang In-Roi, Kim Yoon-Cheol, Lee Tae-Gon, Jung Sung-Joo and Han Ji-Hoon.

The other three hybrids had neither the preparation of jTBC nor the necessary know-how, a clear indication of how superficially this entry into the broadcasting had been approached by them. Know-how doesn’t just mean signing a few capable producers and writers and buying remake rights of popular Japanese dramas, it encompasses the whole production structure — as for instance the four channels are still forced to rent sets, with all the logistical and financial difficulties that can ensue. This lack of preparation extended all the way to the manner in which budgets were allocated: the hybrids have become the perfect chance for actors and veteran writers to make easy money – Chae Si-Ra is making 45 million won per episode on Queen Insoo, and Yoo Seung-Ho a reported 15 million for 프로포즈 대작전 (Operation Proposal), a good 50 to 100% more than his past roles. But when you’re inexperienced and lack the necessary facilities and equipment, production costs can only go up – and the already cash-trapped indies that knocked at the hybrids’ door are clearly footing the bill, fact which is rapidly agitating quite a few mid-sized players which ran head-first into this experiment.

Things could have been even worse, all considered. One of the biggest controversies the hybrids always faced, in fact, concerns the favors they conveniently received from the government, special treatment which attracted the ire of their competitors. Some of them include:

  • The possibility to avoid dealing with advertisers through KOBACO, the national broadcast advertising agency which handles ads for most cable channels and all network ones. This meant that by directly negotiating with the advertisers, the hybrids would be able to earn 30% more than their competitors on average.
  • Being assigned very competitive channel numbers in the high 10s – something that clearly improves visibility and in theory should have increased their ratings, seeing as in some markets those channels were even sandwiched in between the cable version of network ones.
  • Being added to the list of 의무전송, channels of national importance that cable operators are forced to transmit – with the keyword here being the fact that those benefiting from this are exempt from paying broadcast content delivery charges. The list before the change included the two public terrestrial channels (KBS1 and EBS), three public cable broadcasters (KTV, OUN, NATV), one local channel for every cable system operator (which changed depending on the area), two news channels (YTN, Channel Y), at least 3 religious channels (GCN, C3TV, CTS, etc.) and a total of nine channels of public interest (Arirang TV, ARTE, Science TV, EBS English, EBS Plus 1 and 2, WBC, WorkTV and a children’s channel). Notice any illustrious names missing from this list? Bingo. Any privately-run commercial channel like SBS or tvN. But apparently the four hybrids had to be included in this list.
  • The hybrids got pretty much carte blanche to advertise just about everything, even things strictly forbidden on network TV, like medicinal ads – significantly broadening the spectrum of advertisers they could attract.

As we mentioned early on, the hybrids were allowed to broadcast all genres like a normal network channel (unlike the other cable channels, which can only stick to one – although “entertainment” can encompass dramas, movies and variety), but at the same time benefit from all the unique features of cable TV, including being able to broadcast 24/7, run commercial breaks in the middle of a program (unlike network TV), and liberally feature all sorts of product placement (whereas on network TV it’s limited in scope, exposure and type of brands you can publicize, which explains why we still get taped badges on cars.)

Last but not least, another benefit the hybrids had over everyone else was the fact that advertisers had decided to give them a sort of honeymoon period (meaning they would buy ads regardless of the programs’ ratings) lasting between three and six months, depending on results. This is the reason why you saw hybrid shows airing in February that scored 0.1% and yet had a 70%-full ad plate (so think something like 13-14 ads), whereas anything below 10% on network TV would be lucky to get a dozen. But that honeymoon period wasn’t exactly a kind concession by the advertising industry: the hybrids “earned” it via what could only be construed as blackmail. The idea we’re dealing with four inexperienced minnows with little influence collapses once you realize that three of the four are backed by conservative newspapers which alone control 60% of all the news sector. This not only means they have immense financial firepower, but also a monstrous amount of clout and leverage. This, more than simple money, is what the Cho-Joong-Dong used to “attract” advertisers: the threat of being disparaged on the evening news, and then the pages of the three biggest newspapers in town the day after, if you refused to advertise on their shows. The reason why they so aggressively pushed for advertisers (be it via ads, sponsorships or PPL) to invest in their shows is because a predominant part of their launching strategy dealt with dramas, and indie producers weren’t going to splash all that cash on an entity which yet had to prove itself. They needed money, but they couldn’t just go out there and explicitly ask for it. And so there it was, the perfect trick: an offer you couldn’t refuse.

If for a minute you put yourself in the advertisers’ shoes, being blackmailed was probably nothing more than a business partnership starting off on the wrong foot for them – after all, if you’re “encouraged” to invest in a successful venture, business ethics are the last thing you’ll worry about. The real issue was the fact that the hybrids asked advertisers to practically blindly fund their arrival onto the scene, since their shows had nowhere near the visibility that would justify the kind of rates they asked. Consider that a cable channel with a yearly average rating of 1% (something that every channel but a handful of established ones like tvN, OCN, Comedy TV and the big three’s drama ones will have a hard time reaching) will make about 100 to 120 bilion won a year in advertising. In their first three months of broadcasts, the four hybrids are all well below the 1% mark, with only jTBC barely above 0.5%, and MBN actually hovering dangerously close to the low 0.3%’s. This means that even a somewhat promising channel like jTBC will only make about 50 billion won in advertising this year, whereas they’ll need to spend three to four times that amount. Losing 150 billion in a year for huge names like the Joongang Ilbo might be sustainable for a couple of years, particularly if ratings start showing some promise down the line. But what about a relatively smaller entity like the Maeil Gyeongje? You’re looking at only 30-40 billion in the tank (unless ratings continue to go down) and ending the year so deeply in the red that the Maya’s prophecy might indeed come true for MBN.

And this is with ad rates that are completely beyond any actual market value, and with the honeymoond period still being part of the equation. Network channels average between 6% and 7% yearly, and will ask 100. Does it make sense for a channel with one twentieth of their numbers to ask 70? Of course it doesn’t. But this is creating ripple effects which might eventually sink the whole ship – as, inspired by the aggressive demands of the hybrids, now even network channels are beginning to press major advertisers like Samsung to more actively “support their cause.” There is only so much money those advertisers can invest, and no matter how inflated the Hallyu bubble is becoming, we’re only talking about a tiny domestic market which is keeping afloat thanks to Japan and those same advertisers. You take those delirious obasan out of the equation while oppressing your only other source of revenue beyond every limit, and the whole ship will go down faster than you can spell Titanic.

These first turbulent three months had other consequences, hurdles which perhaps the hybrids weren’t prepared (or willing) to cope with. You’re by now familiar with how a show’s ratings can affect its length on network TV, as hits will almost certainly be extended, and low-rated shows that aren’t on KBS always have to co-exist with the risk of being shortened. It’s actually a much more complex issue, as it now includes all the positioning stratagems that have become even more important than having a good lead-in for your next show. But up until now, this was something that only network TV had to worry about. The financial structure of a cable channel is in fact completely different – as for instance tvN, Mnet and OCN are part of the same CJ E&M family, and the goal here is usually that of creating brands that only cater to a certain target demographic (such as tvN’s aggressive rebranding based on youth-oriented and chick-lit dramas, or OCN acting like the low rent version of the Horny Bling Overload.) But the hybrids positioned themselves as the equivalent of four new network channels, trying to attract as broad an audience spectrum as possible from the start.

This can work with the kind of visibility network accords you, but on cable – whose 2005 Choi Hong-Man vs Bob Sapp K-1 fight on MBC ESPN and its 15% peak rating still remains the nearly unapproachable apex – it’s a whole different ball game. For starters, the image this sector of the industry has gained over the years is that of the aforementioned niche brands, and also a lazy excuse for the big three to toss endless repeats on their cable channels (not to mention further monetize the popularity of dramas by selling them to several cable channels for continued reruns.) No matter how much things have changed, people still don’t buy cable as an alternative to network television, and will likely not change their minds until just about every network drama with the exception of dailies and weekend ones starts averaging 5-6% like in Japan. But that’s something that won’t happen for at least another few years.

The hybrids’ tentative to aggressively introduce themselves (through the same conservative newspapers which partly own them, for instance) actually created the opposite effect: while older demographics who are generally creatures of habit simply ignored their advent, a large portion of Korean youths reacted angrily at the “conservative invasion” which the hybrids represented. You could feel the heat in the air for months before and after their launching, as hordes of netizens would narrate of how they had literally removed the four channels from their cable set-top-boxes, and that they encouraged their friends to do so as well. Regardless of everything they did to bring this negativity upon themselves, nobody in the industry expected the new channels to face this kind of backlash – which in a rather puzzling but characteristically Korean way extended all the way to accusing anyone showing up on any of them to be some sort of traitor collaborating with the enemy. Even figure skating superstar Kim Yeon-Ah (I ain’t saying Yu-Na, darling.)

So you couple the general lack of visibility ingrained in the cable sector with these winds of negativity assaulting the hybrids from day one, and suddenly all those sub-1% flops start to make sense. And it’s not just a matter of averaging under the all-important 1% – some of the shows airing on MBN and Channel A even did 0.01%. If you consider a total viewership of 24 to 25 million TV sets, we’re only dealing with a few thousand viewers. How couldn’t the head honchos of such sinking ships not panic – particularly when they are for the most part products of ruthless corporatism which generally only cares about profit?

The consequences are beginning to be felt already, with dramas like 왓츠업 (What’s Up) being moved up and down the lineup with little warning, or suddenly curtailed without even giving the writers enough time to adjust, like 컬러 오브 우먼 (The Color of Women). Channel A canceled several of their B-list variety shows after only a few episodes, and did so in a completely unilateral way – as the indies producing the shows were merely informed that their product would no longer be needed. There are even more grotesque stories involving productions beginning with a handshake and nothing written on paper, and the channels cutting budgets left and right due to low ratings, forcing the producers to lose money and have a compromised product they’ll never sell — but at this point that only seems to be the tip of the iceberg. What’s most worrying is that, given the nature of this business in Korea, those same indies will not even try to defend themselves legally, seeing as suing the hybrids could create a precedent which would turn them into persona non grata in the eyes of network broadcasters as well, although for once they’re the ones being oppressed.

But let me once again play Devil’s advocate, if I may.

Korea is a young, feisty democracy, fiercely trying to defend what Gwangju and the democratization process brought to the table with the kind of energy and passion that are long gone in the supposedly more mature democracies of the west. Still, there is always this shallowly populist tendency to turn every issue into a cheap dichotomy, a sectarian diatribe which paints every situation as a simple “us vs them” question. It seems like democracy in Korea only means two sides which survive by fighting each other non-stop in an endless chaos, and not actually different point of views co-existing in a somewhat organic whole. That is perhaps another facet of the group mentality which has driven the Korean psyche for decades, but it’s rarely been this violent, particularly when applied to something as innocuous as TV dramas. The hybrids deserve reproach for the way they approached this industry, and so does the government, for conveniently according them so many benefits. They more than brought all those flops upon themselves, approaching this industry in a much too hurried, superficial way. And it’s obvious that their laughably biased news reporting and the general lack of know-how displayed in their in-house productions reeks of amateur hour and utter complacency. But would you wish to see something like Fox News disappear just because of The O’Reilly Factor? Would you accept to make an opposing view – no matter how intellectually and ethically corrupt it might be – vanish simply because it does not adhere to your idea of democracy, which still seems to be “my way or the highway?” Wouldn’t you, like, stoop to their same level by doing so?

I, for one, would not. Especially because as someone who only watches dramas and little else, I can say the hybrids so far have delivered on their promise to bring back diversity to K-drama shores. It’s diversity that looks back at the past, in a way, as there is nothing innovative in shows like Queen Insoo and 곰배령 – 천상의 화원 (The Garden of Heaven). But they ooze that old school aura of respect for the viewer, even when dealing with painfully obvious themes. They’re not afraid of cliches, and instead actually take advantage of them. And, most importantly, they respect genre canons without being trapped by them – something that most network dramas, so hell bent on pursuing shallow makjang tropes or turning every genre into an appetizer for petting, don’t even bother with. Queen Insoo is like an old school KBS weekend sageuk without the burdensome machismo which afflicted so many of those shows; The Garden of Heaven reminds of the glorious home dramas which turned MBC into the industry’s one true kingdom in the 1980s – shows driven by an irresistible warmth and that ever so pungent, realistic scent of people. 빠담빠담 (Padam Padam) might have been unnervingly uneven and perhaps the worst clash of style between PD and writer of recent memory, but it’s still something that favorably compares and even beats most asinine trendy dramas on network TV. 한반도 (The Korean Peninsula) compensates for the cheap thrills of silly potboilers like 아이리스 (Iris) and 아테나 (Athena) with some much needed restraint and intelligence. And, last but not least, if its beginning is of any indication, 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials) and its down-to-earth vibe – which reminds of the breezy, realistic rom-coms and of Chungmuro’s 2000’s boom – might become the real surprise of the year.

What all this means is that they might have not given us the best of first impressions, and their motives might be questionable, but there is no doubt that these hybrids deserve an opportunity to grow, make mistakes and evolve just like every other channel that preceded them, and every single one that will follow. Because, finally, they’re giving a chance to people who really care about dramas. People like Jung Ha-Yeon, like Noh Hee-Kyung, Kim Ji-Woo, Ahn Pan-Seok, and all the rest. Some of them actually end up with rather puzzling creative farts, like the formidable Kim Ji-Woo/Park Chan-Hong duo with the mortally dull Kimchi Family. But the fact that Dramahouse and jTBC were able to bring them back after five years of industry-inflicted silence alone is what earns these four new channels a chance. Because someone is being given the chance to fail without strings attached, something that the big three, who often play so safe that victory resembles failure to an almost dumbfounding extent, have long forgotten.

And I say let them fail, fall down and be hit in the face by the weight of their mistakes. And let them rise, and come back for another fight. Because that, and only that, can give our beloved industry a future. And if the revolution happens to be broadcast by channels owned by the same forces we are trying to fight, well.

So be it.

~ Last Update: 2015/04/08