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  1. 2009.08.31 Rebooting Korean Television 2.0 On the Web (76)
Korea Technology Review2009. 8. 31. 22:21

Is the recession boosting the television viewing? According to the Nielsen Co.'s "Three Screen Report" for the fourth quarter of 2008, the average American now watches more than 151 hours of TV a month, about five hours a day and up 3.6 percent from the 145 or so hours Americans reportedly watched in the same period last year.

Or the ubiquity of the screens left no option for the average American but more combined viewing of the television anywhere? In fact, the "Three Screen" in the report refers to televisions, computers and mobile phones, the three prime channels for the public today to enjoy the video content.

The trend towards ever increasing presence of the television among the contemporary media consumers is being replicated across the Pacific as well, in the bandwidth capital of the world.

In terms of its share of audience hours, network television has been on a downward trend in Korea for years, losing its ground to the Internet, cable television and other new media platforms. However, if you break down the share of the hot memes by tracking up to its original media source every day, a totally different picture emerges.

Roughly 70 to 80 percent of the daily hot queries in Naver, Korea's top search engine, is simply a regurgitation of the issues discussed earlier in the network television, defying the early optimism of the media pundits who envisioned that the Internet would offer an alternative channel in setting the key public agenda.

Scores of top bloggers that attract bulk of the Korean web traffic are like parasites, simply chewing juicy morsels of the entertainment news or celebrity gossips thrown from the television screen in their blog posts, hence amplifying the television's dominance on setting the national agenda. 

This is puzzling since media analysts have been unanimous in their projection that the proliferation of the Internet and the broadband network will inevitably chip away conventional TV time of an average Joe the couch potato. Television is here to stay, they predicted, but it would be reduced to the hum in the background, except being called upon occasionally in time of the national crisis to play the role of the spectacular media, providing common topic and synchronous conversation for the public. On the contrary, television is gaining back its strength as a leading synchronous media, boosted by the asynchronous reverberation of the Internet.

This is in stark contrast to the dire situation of many newspapers, that are not gaining new advertising dollars on the Net as they are losing the subscriptions in the brick-and-mortar front.

Television's unrelenting clout as the custodian of the society's shared conversation is even more pronounced in Korea, despite the full advance of the broadband Internet here for the past 10 years. Perhaps, Korea's centralized message dissemination system may have helped. The content produced in the network's Seoul station dominates the screens of almost 99 percent of regional affiliates, reaching as far a place as in Los Angeles, where there is a huge cluster of vibrant ethnic Korean community.

The resurgence of the television in Korea is largely indebted to the network's prescient decision to embrace the Web instead of fighting it. From the early days of the Internet, KBS, MBS and SBS, the top three television networks have been releasing almost all of their scheduled programs on the Web as video-on-demand. The networks opened up most of their regular programs for free on the Net, but even when they charged for some popular content, they almost always offered users an option to detour the pay wall in return for the participation in some co-promotion campaigns with the sponsors.

As the TV fans get addicted to the asynchronous viewing of the top network shows, however, they usually ended up paying hard cash to enjoy more high quality programs available in the high definition format. SBS, the top network station that has been consistently more enthusiastic than its competitors about the online content business, earned over KRW 43 billion (about US$40 mil) in revenue on the Web last year, whereas it grossed KRW 607 billion (about $570 mil) from its television arm.

Form follows function and the real time online interaction with the audience soon changes the program formats as well. So, it was not just additional revenue from its online platform that Korean television picked up from the Internet. The Web has transformed the network television by changing their production and programming practices from its core.

For starters, television station usually open up a dedicated program website complete with message board and other bells and whistles to capitalize on the viral power of the viewers. Korean networks start to air big budget mini-series or dramas when roughly one third of the production is completed at the time of the premiere. Producers earn some leeway this way to fine tune the story based on the online feedback. Many times, plot would change at the request of fans and some unpopular cast members would be ousted after overnight rating results are released. Sometimes finished tapes would be delivered to the master broadcasting room just a few minutes before an on-air hour. It is as-you-go production and post-production.

Production staff and stars are easily burned out in this tight production schedule but they can still capitalize on the last minute chance and save the dying show by constantly monitoring the feedback posted in the program's online message board. Some loyal fans would persuade less enthusiastic viewers who would otherwise watch weekend reruns to stick to the original show time as a way to cheer up producers and actors and lift the show rating.

As the networks cut down on the production budget with the looming financial crisis, product placement is emerging as a promising alternative to fill in the deficit. However, the fleeting exposure in the midst of the show fails to catch the attention of but a few sensitive eyes. The Web comes in squarely to connect the missing link here. Producers can direct viewers to look up the program homepage for more detailed information about the featured products, services and places. The asynchronous Web is complementing the synchronous experience of the television this way.

The mutually beneficial relationship between the television and the Web can go only so far as its core audience is willing to accept the Internet, however. No wonder MBC and SBS, whose core audience spans from in their 20s to 40s, the most Web-savvy cohorts, are striving much harder to make full use of the Internet, whereas KBS, with its core audience spanning from in their 40s to 60s, who are practically glued to the television, is not trying as hard.

Generally, the world's highest penetration of the Korea's broadband network has pushed stations to produce more interactive reality shows and engage in conversation with the viewers in otherwise traditional programs. Sometimes television screens would be streaming the live text messages at the bottom sent from the viewers. 

Space shattering and interactive nature of the Web has been a great boon especially for the radio. After all, radio was already a highly interactive media even before the birth of the Web thanks to the radio's extensive use of live telephone conversation with the listeners.

By incorporating the Web, MBC's MINI, its Internet radio and KBS's KONG are reaching the listeners from the far corners of the world, breaking down the traditional bound of the network constituency. And inevitably, some top radio shows have started to experiment with video streaming on the Web as well. In the future, radio show hosts may be judged by their looks as much as they are judged by their voice talent.

The rise of citizen journalism and the shifting landscape of the media leadership in the wake of Seoul's broadband revolution seemed to have signaled the demise of the television medium as we know it today. However, television has made a spectacular come back to the contemporary media scene and is suddenly relevant again by internalizing the hidden desire of the audience expressed on the Net.

If you are brave enough to look through the hype and zero in on the changing nature the audience, the Web will soon prove itself to be the network's best friend, not a foe. Still not convinced yet? Then come and visit the bandwidth of capital of the world and look for yourself how Korean networks have jump-started the TV 2.0 on the Web.
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