Infinite Challenge


China thaw drives new Korean engagement; brakes off on Korean variety post-strike

Two big questions hover around anything Korean as this year’s Asia TV Forum kicks off on Wednesday.  

The first is what happens now that China’s hard-line anti-Korea stand is softening, and the crippling China freeze that ruined business for Korean producers/rights holders through 2017 looks like it could, maybe, be over.

The second is the impact of strikes that crippled broadcast behemoths Korean Broadcasting System (KBS), which is still on strike) and Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), where union members rang the back-to-work bell about two weeks ago.

Answers to the first are no-one knows yet (or is willing to hazard a guess) and the wounds are still too raw and the experience too commercially traumatic to let hopes rise too high too fast.

Korean producers say green lights are flashing all over the place across all kinds of China-related projects. But, having looked in shock and horror at big fat zeros where millions of dollars of revenue used to be, they’re being cautious about leaping right in again.

“We have to see what happens... Some people are anticipating, but most of our industry are now very careful. No one can predict that country,” one Korean producer told us.

The suspicion also lingers that China’s move against Korean entertainment was driven by more than the former Korean government’s adoption of the U.S.-backed THAAD missile defence programme. Korean drama, they say, was just too popular and Chinese producers needed a chance to catch up, which is when the regulators stepped in.

Answers to the second, strike-related question are, perhaps, easier, even though the long-running and simmering issue is very likely to bubble up again when political winds change.  

Most important to regional broadcasters is that the strike had no impact on high-value dramas, such as Hospital Ship, Golden Pouch and Children of the 20th Century, which are not produced in-house. Variety shows such as Infinite Challenge were stopped, interrupting the flow to services like Oh!K, a regional channel operated by Turner with an output deal with MBC.

Turner says despite the upheaval, Oh!K was Singapore’s top Korean general entertainment channel in prime time for September and October (source: GFK SG TAM). “By and large, our pipeline of Korean dramas has been unaffected and we also have an extensive library of content to draw from,” says Marianne Lee, Turner’s VP for general entertainment content.

The mid-November back-to-work call by MBC union members followed the formal dismissal of the network’s president, Kim Jang-kyeom, accused of meddling with news coverage to favour ousted conservative president Park Geun-hye’s government.

Fellow strikers at KBS have called for the exit of KBS president, Ko Dae Young, for engaging in similar activities. Ko is also accused of taking  a KRW2 million/US$1,800 bribe from Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) in 2009 to squash reports about the NIS. Ko denies the allegations.

The whole issue, including the vote to sack Kim, was nothing if not highly politicised, from big-picture support from Moon Jae-In’s current progressive government to the details of which board members of MBC’s largest shareholder, the Foundation for Broadcast Culture (FBC), turned up to vote to axe Kim Jang-kyeom.

Local new agency Yonhap quoted Kim, as he was being ousted, saying he hoped he was the last victim of the government’s “control of public broadcasters and oppression of journalism”. Kim also apologised for “failing to keep MBC’s independence from those in power”.

Allegations against Kim and Ko are by no means the end of the attempt to hunt down others seen to have attempted to manipulate news one way or another.

Among other actions, prosecutors have raided homes and offices of senior officials accused of colluding with the intelligence services to silence critics of former President Lee Myung-bak, who is also being investigated for abuse of power during his term from 2008 to 2013.  

Unions at KBS and MBC have long called for independent news coverage in a system historically stacked against anything of the sort in an environment wracked with allegations of bias from one side or the other.

And that, whatever else happens, looks unlikely to change.