A dispute over the license fee for state broadcaster KBS took a strange turn Thursday following the Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s recommendation that broadcasting authorities change the fee collection method in favor of a separate billing system.
The presidential office said Monday it sent the recommendation to the Korea Communications Commission and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy, asking them to revise related laws so that the license fee could be separated from electricity bills.
KBS has been charging a monthly fee of 2,500 won ($1.92) to all households since 1994. But it is not KBS but the state-run Korea Electric Power Corp. that collects the fee by embedding it in monthly electricity bills.
Since viewers cannot pay -- or refuse to pay -- what they view as an optional public TV license fee separately from the mandatory electricity bills, the current collection policy has long been criticized as a forceful and distorted method by Korean viewers.
Why did KBS and previous administrations introduce such a system? After all, without such arm-twisting, many Korean households are unlikely to pay the fee for KBS, a negative outlook which is feared to undercut its prime source of revenue.
On Thursday, KBS CEO Kim Eui-cheol stepped into the controversy by announcing he would resign if the government keeps the current collection policy that integrates the TV license fee into electricity bills.
Kim, who was appointed by Yoon's predecessor, President Moon Jae-in, promised to resign immediately after the government withdraws the plan to separate out the fee.
Kim’s remark implies that he could give up on his position to safeguard KBS’s main income source if he was seen as the cause of the problem in the eyes of the Yoon administration. Effectively, Kim is presenting his own resignation as an incentive to Yoon, as it would give Yoon the opportunity to nominate his choice of CEO.
In South Korea, the president appoints CEO of KBS, who in turn appoints key executives at the public broadcaster -- a structure that has been criticized for giving the government too much influence on the media industry.
It is understandable that Kim believes it is his responsibility to prevent a change in fee collection from almost destroying KBS’s revenue structure, even at the cost of his job. But his claim that the separation of the license fee will get KBS to “face a crisis in fulfilling its public duties” seems to be far removed from the truth.
KBS' potential financial crisis stems largely from its self-inflicted wounds. First and foremost, most Korean viewers do not regard the license fee as necessary, reflecting the mistakes and failures of KBS.
For instance, the presidential office held a monthlong public debate on the license fee collection method from March 9. The results were stunning. Among the 58,251 participants, 97 percent voted for improving the collection policy. More importantly, over half of 64,000 posts written in the opinion board favored abolishing the license fee, and around 20,000 posts preferred an option to collect the fee separately. Only 0.5 percent of opinion posts favored keeping the current method.
What went wrong? A number of viewers see the license fee as outdated at a time when there are hundreds of cable TV channels and multiple streaming video services. A growing number of Koreans prefer watching YouTube and streaming videos according to their own schedule, instead of relying on the program schedule of terrestrial TV networks.
As the number of single-person households increases and smart devices replace TV sets, people complain about having to pay the license fee even though they do not watch TV at all. The number of households requesting a return of the license fee jumped to 45,266 in 2021, up from 15,746 in 2016.
The public perception of KBS remains negative. Many viewers, scholars and media critics question the fairness and public nature of KBS, as it often abandoned a neutral position to side with the government of the time.
KBS also lags behind other foreign public broadcasters such as BBC in Britain and NHK in Japan in producing high-quality public programs, while allocating only a fraction of license fee income -- 2.8 percent, to be exact -- to the nation’s public education network EBS.
KBS is also under fire for poorly managing its sprawling organizations, while refusing to carry out a much-needed restructuring. The list goes on and on.
The reality facing KBS is that many viewers want to abolish the license fee collection itself since they believe even 2,500 won is too much. Regardless of whether the government pushes for separation or abolition of the fee, what KBS badly needs is painful reforms to restore its tainted reputation and brace for a potentially difficult period ahead.