Role of Public Television
in the Age of Digital Multi-Channel TV: Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation South Korea
Song Weon Geun
Along with the advancement of digital technology, one of the changes facing public television is that the value of channels has diminished due to their increase in number. As a result, public TV viewers’ rating has been adversely affected.
Under such circumstances, the social demands on public television have become more diverse.
Public television operations should be based on market principles. To be sure, it is necessary to normalize viewer charges in face of low viewership rating and to engage in efficient operations. These are issues worth considering.
In face of progressively sensationalized multi-channel commercial television stations, a public television should look to develop more programs of public interest, so as to become a bridge for communication with the public. Due to the popularity of the Internet-based personal media, the current television industry needs to change. Public television should work to integrate the viewing public from the different regions, maintain the integrity of the TV station and the viewing public, and ultimately forge a national spirit.
In addition, in an age when culture is key to national competitiveness, we must facilitate national cultural exchanges through TV program exchanges, sales, and competition. The increase in the number of channels boosts sales and program exchanges between countries. As mutual broadcasting between countries become more frequent, public television should likewise shoulder the responsibility of promoting its country of origin and improving its own image.
In relation to public interest programs and market principles focused on viewership rating, I would like to briefly explain how Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) of Korea is able to use its unique methods to adapt to the present environment.
MBC’s Unique Framework and Financial Operation
Please allow me to briefly explain the current situation and position of MBC. At present, terrestrial TV stations in Korea consist of the state-run KBS Channels 1 and 2, which rely mainly on viewing charges, and the private-run SBS, which relies on revenue from advertisements. MBC is unique because it is a semi-public-run operation and it relies on revenue from advertisements.
MBC does not charge viewers’ fee or receive government subsidies; its revenue is dependent on advertisements and other business activities. MBC therefore has an operational framework similar to that of a commercial TV station.
For this reason, MBC is sensitive to viewership rating and is forced to continuously look for the focus of viewer interest.
The largest MBC shareholder is a non-profit group called Foundation for Broadcast Culture, and hence MBC can be called a public-run TV station. In legal terms and by policy, MBC’s self-regulation and autonomy are carried out by the Foundation and the labor union.
The Foundation for Broadcast Culture, which was established by special legislation, consists of media leaders at the different levels dedicated to improvement and progress. The Foundation oversees MBC operations as a major shareholder. Even the MBC president is selected from among the Foundation members. In its annual evaluation of MBC, the standards used by the Foundation include operational efficiency, revenues, and public interest.
In addition, MBC internal operations is based on the labor union, which forms a mechanism for review and monitoring to determine the fairness of news reports, as well as to safeguard professionalism, self-regulation, and creativity.
The persons-in-charge of the TV station invest heavily in manpower development, focusing on self-regulation and experimentation to stimulate the employees’ creativity. The station does not have any other sources of financial support. All employees are able to adapt to environmental changes with the mindset that they are in charge of the station.
Moving Toward Popular Programs Focused on Public Interest
MBC spares no effort in developing popular programs focused on public interest. In other words, its motto is to produce interesting and beneficial programs.
Widely known as “Drama Land,” MBC produces drama series that reflects Korean culture and emphasizes a healthy life perspective.
The popular “Dae Jang Gum” drama series is a typical example. The series has more than 50 episodes and more than 50 percent viewership rating, which is an incredible viewing record in this age of multi-channel TV systems. The series is appealing because it incorporates parables in entertainment. Traditional protagonists in Korean historical dramas, especially political authorities, are played by males. “Dae Jang Gum,” however, breaks away from tradition by depicting the virtues of indomitable females who reflect the professionalism of today. The public welcomes such drama style. If this series were produced as a mere love story or centered on lessons on preparing dishes in the imperial court, it would not have achieved the aforementioned success.
Another example is the variety show “Exclamation Mark!,” where comedians simultaneously explore serious social issues while providing entertainment. These include issues on youth education, human rights of migrant workers, and environmental problems. The comedians lead the audience to confront such issues in a lighthearted manner, feel the crux of the problem, and seek solutions for incorporation into national policies. There is also the program “Introducing Books,” which enlivens serious topics to attract audiences to books and successfully establish “miracle libraries” in villages.
MBC leads the other terrestrial TV stations in Korea in viewership rating. Apart from 1996, 1997, and 2002, MBC had maintained top viewership rating among the four terrestrial TV channels in Korea over the last 11 years (from 1992 to 2003). MBC is likewise the most popular TV channel. With its outstanding performance, MBC likewise has the best brand image.
MBC does not sacrifice public interest for viewership rating. It has very high credibility in TV news reporting. Recently, a survey carried out on Internet users by a current events magazine showed that MBC news is number one in credibility rating.
MBC Hopes to Enhance Korea’s National Image Through TV Broadcasting Exchanges Among Countries
MBC’s market has recently expanded to cover other Asian regions. Korean dramas, such as the MBC TV series What is Love?, are popular in mainland China. Other series such as Star in My Heart and Hotelier are also aired in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Dae Jang Gum is currently being aired in Taiwan and is quite popular. The series is expected to air in Japan this October.
After MBC and Japan’s TBS co-produced the TV series Friends in 1999, the two stations formed a strategic alliance with Fuji TV to jointly produce a drama series and documentary film each year, and air them simultaneously in Korea and Japan.
It is hoped that such exchanges of TV culture will foster goodwill between the peoples of Japan and Korea who have been entangled in historical disputes for a long time. The success of the 2002 World Cup jointly hosted by Korea and Japan makes us proud.
Naturally, some question MBC’s unique position. MBC, for its part, always replies by asking: Is MBC less interesting than the other commercial TV stations? Is MBC less concerned with public interest than the other public-run TV stations?
In short, as the number of TV channels progressively increases, viewership per channel likewise decreases. I believe that instead of producing TV programs that cater to a small viewership, public television should focus on the masses to maximize the effects of broadcasting. For this reason, instead of choosing between what is interesting and beneficial or between market principles and being pubic-run, public television should consider them complementary and objects for integration. In this age of multi-channel TV systems and diminishing audience, the audience’s preference and recognition should also be taken into account to produce programs that are beneficial and consistent with public interest.
(The content is subject to a bit of change)