Assistant managing editor
It may sound callous, if I say I am not much affected by disruptions in the broadcasting schedules caused by a general strike at MBC, one of three major television networks. And I could live with no great inconvenience if it were taken off the air.
After all, MBC reporters, who are in the same line of work as me, together with program directors and other staff, are protesting for what they see as a rule of tyranny by their president, Kim Jae-chul, who is sucking up to the powers that he owes his present job to.
They have been on a strike for close to two months. As with workers of any other field of work engaged in protracted labor strife, those protestors are left mentally pressed and financially constrained.
Their mission is noble. What they are trying to do is to keep news free from the influence of power and provide “unbiased news” to consumers to help them judge a given situation with the least undue interference.
At stake is our collective freedom of speech that is pivotal to the upkeep of our democratic values.
Sacrificing their wages and risking their jobs to protect those fundamental values is laudable to say the least. Besides, trying to oust a dictator for serving the interest of his employer at the expense of the masses requires a round of applause because their action is for us.
From my moralistic and journalistic point of view, that by and large sums up the whole MBC situation.
But the other side of me as a television viewer and consumer tells a different story.
Nowadays, I rarely watch MBC’s primetime news because it doesn’t have as much news compared to programs offered by rival networks KBS and SBS, both in terms of quantity and depth.
Immediately after the strike began, MBC’s nine o’clock news was affected by the walkout by reporters and was reduced to 10 to 15 minutes, one third of the normal length. Now it has been lengthened to about 30 minutes, still about 15 minutes short of the pre-strike program.
As a news provider, MBC reporters may argue that they can catch up with what’s lost when the broadcaster’s president is kicked out, saying that the importance of an editorial balance of reports can’t be overestimated and they are putting their necks on the line to achieve it.
It is a matter of course that Kim, who is saying that he will not leave his job unless “carried out in a coffin,” is more to blame, according to MBC unionists’ allegation that he is putting the network at the beck and call of power.
But for a majority of viewers, the two sides’ claims and counterclaims don’t count for much. News has been so commoditized that it is traded much like a product.
Consumers select products on the basis of quality. By that standard, MBC programs are unwholesome, if not defective, compared with those of its competitors. The choice couldn’t be clearer.
Either side will say that if they win in this battle, they will do their best and provide us with better services, a promise that sounds nothing more than a baiting call to consumers, who want the best product and want it immediately. That’s consumer activism in action.
MBC’s non-news programming has also been disrupted.
Its variety programs and dramas have also preemptively been taken off the air. Time slots are filled by reruns and other programs. I was upset at first when my favorite nighttime miniseries were yanked off but even when they are put back on, I don’t go back and watch them, having lost track of the plot.
MBC used to offer a two-hour news magazine program starting at six in the morning and, the last time I checked, a show about health was on air instead. Another broken promise!
One other thing both the MBC management and its union should bear in mind is that there are plenty of alternatives. For instance, if you subscribe to a cable service or are hooked up to Internet Protocol TV, there could be hundreds of other channels available that dovetails better with your intricate viewing needs ranging from news, entertainment and sports to talk shows.
Many interesting podcasts would be readily available.
All told, the MBC situation is increasingly looking like a power struggle between Kim and the workforce at a time when the CEO’s employer, the current regime, is losing its grip on power in its final year of actual governance. Caught between the two warring parties are viewers consumers whose interest both parties claim they are fighting for. But we know better and, as usual in a power game, we are relegated to pawns.
So my bottom line is will we allow ourselves to play patsy again?
I won’t. So I exercise my rights as a consumer and propose boycotting all MBC programming to convey my message of protest to both management and reporters. It is not the first time that MBC has gone on strike and probably won’t be the last. If its history of disputes fails to achieve editorial independence and do away with the practice of having its CEOs “parachute-appointed,” it is time for us, the little people, to act together and set things in the right direction.
As I was writing this column on Monday morning, I was worrying how I would not watch my favorite MBC night drama that is back on air and how I would persuade my wife to join me in my one-man MBC boycott.