12-Year-Old International Channel Looks Helpless Against KBS Offensive
By Kim Tong-hyung
Arirang, the iconic Korean folk tune, has many versions, but the most famous one is a slow, maudlin song about a departing loved one disappearing over a hill. And ``over the hill'' is exactly the description the eponymous television network is trying to avoid as it braces for a possible fight for existence in the coming months.
Since its founding in 1996, Arirang Television has established itself as the country's premier international broadcasting service, providing news, entertainment, educational and documentary programs to 188 countries in seven languages, including English, Chinese, Spanish and Arabic.
However, Arirang is now finding it difficult to keep up with an oversized competitor in KBS, the country's biggest national network that is pushing its own aspirations for an international presence through KBS World.
KBS World, which provides local KBS programs with English subtitles and dubbing, was originally targeted for South Korean expatriates and ``gyopos,'' or foreign nationals with Korean ethnic descent. This differed from Arirang's objectives of becoming Korea's global public relations (PR) agent, promoting positive images of the country's life, culture and economy in different corners of the planet.
However, KBS World has since expanded its coverage to nearly 20 countries since its 2003 debut and has been pushing around Arirang in major pay-T.V. markets in Asia and North America.
Arirang once reached to more than a million households in the Philippines, but that number was halved after KBS World took hold in the country's major cable networks.
Arirang has been in Cambodia since 2001, but with KBS World entering the market in 2006, it now has a miniscule presence in Phnom Penh. Hong Kong was a similar story, where KBS World won the rights to be slotted among the ``basic'' cable channels, thus securing larger exposure, which came at the expense of Arirang, available only in more expensive packages.
And the drive behind KBS World means that KBS no longer provides its programs to Arirang, which already has enough troubles in sourcing quality content.
``KBS is really attacking us in Asian markets where Korean culture and entertainment is popular and we can't compete with them in marketing power,'' said Lee Yong-jae, the team leader of Arirang's innovation and policy planning division.
``KBS World also has international subsidiaries in the U.S. and Japan, which makes it hard for us to establish positions in those markets. KBS World doesn't market itself aggressively in areas without significant Korean populations, so we have an edge in those places.''
The increasing competition between Arirang and KBS World led to questions whether the country should invest its resources in multiple international channels. Naturally, the talks about a possible consolidation followed, much of it obviously fueled by KBS, which argues that KBS World absorbing Arirang is the logical conclusion for everyone involved.
It's not that the idea about conjoining KBS World and Arirang is anything new ― an Arirang official ridicules that the debates started at the moment the network beamed its first signal overseas in 1999. However, many industry watchers believe that the talks could materialize into something substantial under the Lee Myung-bak government, which has put itself on a crusade to reshape the country's media sector.
According to officials at the Korea Communications Commission (KCC), the country's regulator for broadcasting and telecommunications, discussions about a KBS World-Arirang consolidation have been put on hold for the moment.
It wouldn't be meaningful to advance the talks, a KCC commissioner said, when lawmakers have yet to agree on a draft for a revised media law, aimed at dissolving the traditional boundaries between print, broadcasting and the Internet. The controversial bill calls for the lifting of the cross-ownership ban on newspapers and television stations and other bold changes that may forever alter the media landscape.
However, after the National Assembly finally makes its decision, which could happen sometime during June, and everything falls into place, Arirang is likely to endure an earful of debates that may eventually seal its fate.
``I believe there is an overlap in functionalities between KBS World and Arirang,'' KBS President Lee Byung-soon claimed in a National Assembly session last month.
``KBS World can also be used for teaching the Korean language to seven million people of Korean descent around the world and also their children, while Arirang TV has its limitations in providing these people a feel for their motherland. I don't have the exact data, but I doubt that many countries have three separate channels (including 24-hour cable news channel, YTN) broadcasting overseas.''
Do They Overlap or Not?
Does Korea really need a fully devoted PR channel, rather than discarding the training wheels and leaving regular broadcasting corporations to provide the country's multilingual extensions?
Interestingly, the majority of policymakers, television officials and academics who spoke with The Korea Times answered with a definitive ``yes.'' Not many of the experts believe that KBS alone has a prayer of competing with the likes of the BBC and NHK in terms of financial power and the breadth and quality of programs for the global audience.
``It would be weird if countries like Britain or Japan had their own PR channels, considering the influence of the English and Japanese languages, but you really can't say that people around the world are that much interested in Korea,'' said Song Jong-gil, a mass media professor at Kyonggi University.
``Thus, a PR channel like Arirang clearly has an important role. It's similar to how companies try to sell their products overseas ― if the buyers don't come to you, you go to them.''
A KCC official, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed that it would be highly unlikely for government officials to give up on the idea of having a channel to ``properly'' introduce the country to the world.
``We requested a lot of data from Arirang and asked many questions in studying the overlap in roles and audience, but there has been no real arguments about the necessity of having a promotional channel,'' he said.
So perhaps a more relevant question is whether KBS would be capable of handling the PR responsibilities, which will fall in its laps should it replace Arirang, at the risk of compromising its journalistic integrity as a media company.
And it's also debatable whether KBS would be interested in spreading its reach to smaller markets, the way Arirang did, when economies of scale don't exist. KBS World is available in 68 countries worldwide and hasn't been intending to compete with Arirang's width of coverage when it's crushing the rival network in the markets that matter anyway.
Coming up short in providing convincing answers to both of the previous questions, and KBS claims about overlapping roles could lose its legs.
``Operating a promotional channel for the country is all about purpose-oriented programming, with the predominant focus on improving the country's image and brand value. It's more than just making subtitles or doing English voice-overs over your regular programs and sending them out, like KBS World does,'' said Arirang's Lee.
``It's similar to the difference between PR and journalism. Considering its status as a public broadcaster, KBS would be able to treat the job of promoting the country only as an `additional service,' and reluctant to invest too much money and personnel. The limitations will be very clear,'' said Lee.
The strength of KBS is that it provides a more cost-effective international channel, since it uses its own content. KBS says it will spend around 2.2 billion won (about $1.77 million) this year in operating KBS World. In comparison, the budget for Arirang this year exceeds 50 billion won, with more than half of the money coming from public funds.
KBS claims it also has an advantage in providing quality programs, such as the real-time coverage of major sporting events and the airing of recent hit television shows. Securing quality content has always been a problem for Arirang, which relies on other stations to provide about 45 percent of its programs.
No network will provide their premium shows to Arirang before thoroughly milking export markets themselves, meaning that television dramas could be as much as four to five years old when they reach Arirang for the first time.
Arirang clearly has its flaws, but it could be said that the network's massive coverage is an overachievement, considering its obscure legal status and the lack of direct financial support from the government.
KBS can say all it wants about providing a cheaper alternative in KBS World, but it is also the same company that will spend 40 to 50 billion won on its next prime-time television series.
``Lost in all the talks about overlapping functions between Arirang and KBS World is that Arirang had never been provided the financial power to secure quality content,'' said Kyonggi University's Song. Song argues that Arirang should be incorporated into a foundation, thus making it eligible to receive taxpayer money.
About 52 percent of Arirang's 51.2 billion won budget this year will be provided by the broadcasting promotion fund, managed by the KCC, while the rest is generated from the network's share in television reception fees and advertisements.
``There are a lot of better ideas to reduce the overlap between Arirang and KBS World, such as establishing a separate company to manage non-profit public broadcasting services such as Arirang, EBS and K-TV, and perhaps putting KBS World into that mix too,'' Song said.
``I think we earned the right to secure our own spot as the country's promotional channel, and there is no reason to bring confusion by linking us with KBS World, when both networks have different identities,'' said Arirang's Lee.
``We still have a lot to do, as the image of Korea is not always positive, especially in some Asian countries where people have unpleasant memories of their countrymen being treated poorly as migrant workers in Korea in the past. And countries such as China and Japan are putting in more efforts to strengthen their international channels, and we can't afford to fall behind.''