Stars and gripes forever

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Stars and gripes forever

It's the only noncable English-language channel on Korean television, and has run for nearly five decades. It caters chiefly to military personnel stationed in Korea, under the catchphrase "We bring you home." It shows some programs that are rated highly by Nielsen in the United States. Many Koreans who speak English well say they attained their linguistic finesse from tuning in.

Yet the American Forces Network Korea (AFN Korea) cannot escape attacks for poor choice of programs, frequent program errors and lame commercials.

An American journalist who has lived in Korea for a year says, "AFN seems to aim its schedule at the tastes of 18-year-old buck privates: pro wrestling, Judge Judy, Moohlah Beach. And programmers seem continually asleep at the switch. Fifteen minutes of, say, a significant interview on the 'Today Show' are lopped off periodically to let the station jump into an important 'documentary' about a man who plays with tiger cubs. All manner of exciting sporting events are regularly cut off in the final moments so that everyone can sit back and enjoy 'Sesame Street.'"

"Program errors occur all the time," says Jonny Sako, a photographer who tunes in an average of four hours every day. Mr. Sako cited a few incidents to support his point: "Once, when I was watching David Letterman, the first segment of Letterman doing his stand-up act was skipped. It began with the second segment ?a chat with a guest celebrity. Then after three minutes of commercials, the stand-up segment suddenly began. Later, they played the second segment all over again. And it happens in sports and movies, too. On Monday Night Football the games are totally wiped off after the commercial break for the two-minute warning. And movies are often cut off right in the middle to start another one."

AFN Korea does acknowledge that some errors occur during programming. "I am not saying we don't have mistakes, we're human," says Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Crouch, commander of AFN Korea. "But it's not a big issue and we try to implement quality control so that [program errors] don't occur. In fact, I'm surprised that people comment on the program errors. It has not been brought to my attention as a serious issue."

Wallace Cornelison, chief of broadcast operations at AFN Korea and the person who determines the programming, dismisses the complaints. "Mistakes and interruptions don't happen everyday," he said. "And program errors cannot happen here, because nearly all programming is done at the AFRTS Broadcast Center in California."

AFN's commercials are mostly military-related ones such as "Army Newswatch." The rest tend to be previews of shows such as "60 Minutes." But AFN's in-house commercials have always been a topic of ridicule. Brian Ridge, a local English teacher, says, "The in-house commercials are a combination of bad acting and bad production." A video production crew of about five or six makes almost a quarter of the commercials in-house. Most of the local commercials look amateurish and the messages are obvious or quirky. "Make sure you turn the lights off," "Close your cabinets," and "Don't drink and drive" are just some of the elementary information provided by the channel. In one commercial, two women are playing squash and having a conversation about a disconcerting event that occurred recently. The narrator says, "Sexual harassment, you can do something about it." It's a bland commercial, with no visual effects (just two female friends working up a good sweat), but that is how people associate AFN commercials to be. "I sometimes send taped versions of the commercials back home to my friends to show how amusing they are," Mr. Sako says.

Do the commercials have to be so bad? "We have a set budget for making commercials, so we do what we can with it," Mr. Cornelison says. "And we do not receive any money for running ads for military base facilities such as the Dragon Hill Lodge." But surely there must be ways to improve the acting? Mr. Cornelison says, "We have no intention of hiring a public relations company."

Other complaints include the frequent changes in program schedules. When changes do occur, it is usually when important sports coverage on other AFRTS channels besides AFN Korea are inserted into (or played over) the original programs. But the station says it does not happen very much. "Only 5 percent of the programs on AFN Korea are subject to program-changing," Mr. Cornelison says.

Others disagree. "The listings on the AFN homepage differ greatly from what I see on TV, particularly the movies," says Son Sun-ju, an accountant and viewer of AFN for many years.

The staff at the station keep busy by producing local news updates, commercials, or "spots," and certain special programs such as "Korea Destinations." Local news coverage is usually a compilation of information and updates for military personnel in bases all around Korea. According to Mr. Cornelison, 14 of every 60 minutes of broadcast time is dedicated to ads and announcements. The broadcast center in California sends AFN signals called "Q-tones" to tell it when to insert locally produced programs and commercials.

While AFN is targeted at the 60,000 military personnel and families in Korea, there is a "shadow audience" of up to 5 million, consisting of watchers such as expatriates and Koreans who want to learn English. So are slogans like "Here's what's happening in Warrior Country" appropriate? A local AFN watcher, Sohn Ju-hee, says, "AFN is intrinsically a military channel, so I guess they can't help showing public announcements and military-related stuff." Ms. Sohn says that AFN was very popular with Koreans when she was growing up. "But now that we have cable and can see shows like 'Friends' elsewhere, it's no longer hip."

Another local, Ahn Jong-il, says, "At least it's an English channel that doesn't have bothersome captions." And another, Jeong Yeong-su, is a big fan. An English teacher at an institute in downtown Seoul, he uses AFN programs in his classes. "I have no complaints about the programs," he says. "The shows are more up-to-date than the ones we get on cable." As for the commercials, Mr. Jeong is unbothered. "They can be immature, but it's no concern of mine. If people don't like them they can ignore them."

AFN's broadcasting center, on the Yongsan U.S. Army base in central Seoul, is no bigger than what you'd expect to see at a high school broadcasting studio. The center is undergoing renovations, but the staff there still doesn't have much to work with.

Are there any other virtues to AFN Korea other than being an English-language channel with command information and latest sitcoms? "It's informative to any military personnel living on or off the base," says a Korean soldier serving in the combined command. And for the shadow audience? "The one good thing about AFN is that I learn a great deal from the state quizzes," Mr. Sako says. "They are challenging and educational."


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Through the years, an alphabet soup


Armed Forces Radio, which began broadcasting news in Korea on Oct. 4, 1950, using mobile vans, was the originator of American Forces Network, or, as it's better known, AFN. The network's first big scoop was the airing of General Douglas MacArthur's surrender demands to North Korean forces led by Kim Il-Sung. In 1957, the television service, AFKN (American Forces Korea Network) was launched in black and white. The first programs consisted mostly of tapes of such shows as "I Love Lucy" and "Dragnet" for troops stationed in Korea.

In 1977, the first color broadcast was aired. In 1983, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Services satellite network based in the United States began providing direct news coverage to audiences. Last year, the station changed its name from AFKN -- long a symbol of American culture in Korea -- to AFN Korea.

Currently, the AFN broadcasting center in Seoul is fed six channels by the AFRTS Broadcast Center in Riverside, California. Only the main channel, AFN Korea, can be viewed off the base. All scheduling and programming is done from California.

The Army Broadcasting System negotiates the program deals with the networks, but certain shows cannot be shown if Korean or international networks available here have already bought rights to them.


by Choi Jie-ho

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