[WHAT’S ON KOREAN TV]It's good to read (the books we plug)

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[WHAT’S ON KOREAN TV]It's good to read (the books we plug)

Televisions and books may seem like natural enemies, but you wouldn't know it by watching the tube these days. Turn on MBC-TV on Saturday night at 9:45 p.m. and you'll see the program "Exclamation Mark," which is something of a self-improvement show.

In one regular section of the show, "Let's Read Books," two comedians prowl the streets telling passers-by to read. The comedians, dressed in suits and bow ties, grab people at random and ask them if they have read any of the program's books of the month. Whoever has read the most selections is crowned the winner of the week, and gets free books: as many as they can pull in one minute from a pile provided by the station.

Another network, KBS1-TV, is also in on the reading act, but has a more sophisticated approach. Its program "TV Talks About Books," at 10 p.m. on Thursdays, consists of a panel of highbrow academics who discuss books that they consider important or influential.

Not surprisingly, the reading public tends to prefer the other channel's "Let's Read Books," at least judging by its higher audience rating.

When asked about the inspiration for the segment, Kim Young-hee, the producer of "Let's Read Books," said, "I wanted to tell fellow Koreans about the importance of reading." The approach seems to be working. "I usually make my 10-year-old son stay away from the idiot box," said a Seoul housewife, Kim So-young. "But the only exception to this rule is Saturday nights."

As expected, the popularity of the program has had a big effect on book sales. The show has promoted 11 books so far, and most are high on best-seller lists. In fact, while a bookstore's best-seller list used to be a good index of society's cultural interests, these days, it merely tells you which titles the "Let's Read Books" show is promoting. Some of the promoted books on the show have passed the 1-million- sales mark, which is quite remarkable in Korea's stagnant book market.

So while parents may like the show, publishers aren't particularly pleased with it, said Kim Kyong-eun at the Korean Publishers Society.

"The program indeed has played a role in providing a boost to struggling publishers," Mr. Kim said, "but it's only the promoted books and their publishers that reap the benefits."

And because of the program, sales of books that don't get a plug from the show suffer, according to Mr. Kim. Accordingly, the Korean Publishers Society recently came up with suggestions for the program, like having more balance by promoting a wider range of books. "Also, downtown bookstores should have two best-seller lists -- one with the TV-promoted books and one without," Mr. Kim said. The people at "Let's Read Books" have yet to respond to the suggestions.

"What's on Korean TV" appears Wednesdays in the JoongAng Daily.

by Chun Su-jin

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