A longitudinal analysis of foreign program imports on South Korean television, 1978-2002: a case of rising indigenous capacity in program supply.

Author:Lee, Sangoak

The purpose of this study is to trace the trajectory of South Korea's (hereinafter referred to as South Korea or Korea) dependency on imported television programs by investigating the presence of foreign imports on the country's terrestrial television over the past 25 years. Korea fits well as an illustrative case that exhibits a developing country's path toward increasing self-reliance in program supply. Through a case study of Korea, this study expects to analyze a pattern in the international television program flow of a rapidly developing economy, a case that seems to have been left largely unexplained in earlier studies of international communication flow. Korea has been a rapidly developing country, situated somewhere between rich, industrialized nations and less developed ones.

Moreover, it seems difficult to find a previous study that longitudinally examined the level of foreign imports and domestic programs. Through a case analysis using time-series data, a more robust and long-term explanation can be offered as to how the particular developing nation's path of foreign and domestic program supply has evolved. Using longitudinal data, this work examines: (a) fluctuations in foreign program proportion among the terrestrial television broadcasters in Korea, (b) variations by program genres and country origins, and (c) what implications the Korean case has for the international television flow debate.

The Development of the South Korean Television Industry: Milestones and Phases

During the last 25 years, Korea has been one of the fastest growing economies of the world: The combination of government macroeconomic policy and large conglomerates' aggressive expansion against the backdrop of the nation's rapid and successful entry into the global capitalist system helped the country to become one of the fastest growing economies among newly industrializing countries of the world. The Asian financial crisis adversely affected the economy and produced 3 years of contraction. Since 2000-2001, however, the economy has bounced back and returned to a growth cycle despite lingering volatilities and uncertainties. Its per-capita gross domestic product (GDP) returned to the $10,000 level in 2002.

In addition to the economic growth, the country underwent a series of rapid external and internal changes--political, economic, social, and industry specific--that made it possible to break down the 25-year period into several distinctive phases markedly different from one another in terms of the social environment in which the sector operates. According to the Korean Broadcasting Commission (2002, 2003), the important events for each of the five phases can be summarized as follows:

1978-1980: Korea was under the rule of President Park, the military general turned politician, between 1961 and 1979, a period during which the economy was rapidly growing but political activities were severely oppressed. 1978 was the year when the Park administration was at its peak in terms of national economic development. The industrial structure of the broadcasting sector at the time was the coexistence of one state-run public broadcaster (KBS) and two commercial networks (MBC and TBC). Hence, the proportion of imports was expected to be high during this period.

1981-1986: After the assassination of President Park, a new military regime took over the government in 1980. Many changes followed the change of power, including a complete overhaul of the broadcast industry structure and regulations that included closing down the private broadcaster, TBC, and merging TBC with KBS to create KBS2. This tightened government control was expected to significantly lower the level of foreign imports.

1987-1991: The Korean people's demand for democracy was finally met by a constitutional change that reinstituted direct presidential elections, the outcome of which was decided by general popular vote. Also, Korea hosted the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, which served as a catalyst to facilitate international cultural exchanges. The increased freedom and openness were expected to reverse the declining trend in foreign program supply of the previous phase.

1992-1997: In late 1991, the first 100% private terrestrial broadcaster since 1980 began its broadcast services. In 1995, cable television was introduced to Koreans with the advent of more than 20 new cable networks. As a result, the Korean broadcasting industry entered a new phase of increasing commercial competition. This heightened competitive pressure was expected to act as a positive determinant of foreign imports.

1998-2002: In late 1997, the Asian financial crisis hit Korea, leading to a sharp depreciation of the Korean currency and significant contraction of economic activities. As the economy experienced negative growth for the first time in almost 4 decades due to the financial crisis, the Korean television industry was subjected to financial pressure as well. The currency depreciation in this phase was expected to act as a negative determinant of foreign imports.

Theoretical Review

Asymmetry in the international flow of television programs has been one of the subjects most hotly debated in the study of international communications over the past few decades. One school of thought pays special attention to the one-way flow of television content from the United States to developing countries. Schiller (1969, 1976) made a pioneering contribution to this critical tradition of research. Schiller's (1974) main thesis can be summarized by his argument that "In the age of electronic communications, the 'free flow of communications' has turned into a one-way street" (p. 110). After Schiller, Tunstall (1977) traced cultural imperialism's historical roots to the British and American international news agencies founded in the 19th century. He argued that cultural imperialism is older than TV: "The TV imperialism thesis ignores the much earlier pattern of the press and news agencies which quite unambiguously did have an imperial character" (p. 63).

No matter how researchers in this school have explained the causes behind such a phenomenon, they offer one common thesis, namely, that the West, if not the United States, dominates world television to the detriment of poorer countries. The cultural imperialism thesis asserted "the North/South imbalance and what was called 'transnationalization of culture' captured in such expressions as Americanization, homogenization and cultural imperialism" (Kivikuru, 1995, p. 165).

However, the second and opposing argument about the international flow of television content lends support to a staged model of television flow in which reliance on foreign program imports is but a transitory phase. The resilience of indigenous culture, this school of thought advocates, paves the way for the long-term ascendancy of local products over imports.

Katz and Wedell (1977) implicitly rejected much of the TV imperialism thesis and argued that television systems in developing countries go through three stages of institutionalized development. Initially, most equipment and personnel to run the television system are imported from the United States. Subsequently locals learn and acquire expertise of their own. Finally, the system falls completely into the hands of the locals. According to the authors, the third phase typically occurred around 1970 and thus invalidated some of the Schiller arguments based on a high point of U.S. influence on world TV at some point in the 1960s. As for the content side, Pool (1977) asserted, "After learning from BBC, VOA, etc., domestic broadcasters would begin to produce their own programming, in their own language and with local relevance will win the bulk of the audiences" (pp. 142-143). Citing a cyclical theory, he suggested that, initially, there may be relatively few points of origination in television, which will increase the importation of international content. However, the trend is likely to be toward distributed rather than centralized production of specialized materials. Hence, the long-range result of the global flow of communications may be a dispersal of production centers and the enrichment of local and regional culture.

The recent real-world development seems to point to local cultural ascendancy in television programming. A The New York Times article cited a 2001 survey by Nielsen Media Research, which "found that 71% of the top ten programs in 60 countries were locally produced in 2001, representing a steady increase over previous years" (Kapner, 2003, p. 1). The article further quoted David Hulbert, president of Walt Disney Television International, as saying, "The worldwide television market is growing, but America's place in it is declining" (p. 1). According to the article that relied on several industry sources:

The American studios priced themselves out of the market just as competition began to heat up abroad from newly privatized commercial broadcasters and upstart...

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