This screen capture shows comedian Lee Young-ja holding a human-shaped "husband chocolate" on "Saturday Night Live (SNL) Korea." / Korea Times
Cable shows push envelope with sexual content
By Jung Min-ho
Cable television comedy shows such as "Saturday Night Live (SNL) Korea" are blazing a trail — at least in Korea's mostly family-friendly television scene — with their sexually provocative content. The country's heavy-handed censorship authorities aren't too pleased, saying the shows push the limits of acceptability.
SNL Korea, which airs on cable network tvN, set a personal best in viewership for its March 9 episode when comic Lee Young-ja was seen lustily licking a human-shaped "husband" chocolate. According to Nielsen Company Korea, the episode scored a 2.78 rating, peaking at 3.9 percent, to lead all cable programs in the time format from 11 p.m. to midnight.
KBS W, a cable channel associated with the state-run broadcaster, is also pushing the envelope. Its show, "The Restaurant for Women with Worries," has drawn attention from viewers for its honest and raw discussions on relationships and sex, mostly from women's points of view.
"Sex comedy shows like SNL Korea is such a groundbreaking experiment in this conservative country. I like it. The show is sexual but not in a vulgar way. It also talks about politics but not too much," said 28-year-old businessman Park Tae-yang. "With Gag Concert (a sketch comedy on KBS) losing its satirical color, comedy shows loaded with uniqueness are definitely good news for comedy fans like me."
While there is an obvious sense of discomfort among censorship officials, there isn't much they can do before the shows reach television sets.
Unlike movies and games, which are rated by the Korea Media Rating Board and Game Rating Board respectively on a pre-release basis, the Korea Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) evaluates television content only after it hits the air. Advance examinations are left to the discretion of broadcasting companies.
"Depending on how explicit the sexual and violent content demonstrated during the show, if members of the commission think the content went overboard, producers may face punishments from a warning to a fine," said KCSC deputy public relations manager Han Tae-sung. "Despite minor punishments, they respond sensitively to the evaluation because it is a matter of the companies' face."
About claims that the KCSC judgment is highly subjective and more lenient on violent content than sexual matters, Han said the system was still optimal.
"We have a special body that conducts a preliminary review before the commission members go over the show. Consultants of the special organization consist of specialists from various fields. We believe they make the most rational and objective decision possible," Han said.
Nevertheless, programs on cable channels are judged by different standards to those of national terrestrial broadcasters because they are optional, according to the official. Of course, some minors are still awake when shows with sexual content go on the air after 9 p.m.
"I was quite surprised by conversations my students had the other day after I found that they were talking about adult-targeted TV shows," said middle school student counselor Kim Sun-sil. "Obviously, the rating is nothing but a name."
Worse, a "viewers for 19 rating" can be a tease for curious middle school and high school students, she added.
With such shows gaining popularity, however, producers are expected to try to push the limit further in the nation's broadcasting, which is increasingly becoming more competitive with newly added channels.