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.
The day I lost Arirang TV from my cable package was a happy one, and having watched a little KBS World in Taiwan and Vietnam, I can say I'd be glad to have it on my TV here or back home. A big part of our collective disappointment with Arirang is that foreigners expect more from the lone English-language station in Korea, not simply cheerleading, dull interviews, English-education programming, or documentaries on brown people living the Korean Dream. But the article reveals, in a look at whether KBS will end up absorbing Arirang, that we were wrong to expect anything else.
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.
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``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.
It closes with a quotation from "the team leader of Arirang's innovation and policy planning division":
``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.''
Or you could take steps to not treat foreigners poorly as migrant workers in Korea, or buy their young women as mail-order brides, or force your culture on international audiences in the same manner that you've come to resent the US doing. Is it wrong to think an international audience would be more interested in the services of a network than an extended promotional video? I know I'd rather watch news and subtitled soap operas and authentic media---and if they had movies, that'd be awesome---than kimcheerleading, but am I in the minority among foreigners in Korea? Among international viewers? Do others really care either way?