[Outlook]Let the market decide

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[Outlook]Let the market decide

Japan’s NHK and Korea’s KBS television are both public broadcasters. But NHK commands much more respect from the Japanese than KBS does from the Koreans. That is because the Japanese people give credit to NHK for the high quality of its programs and the objectivity of its news reports.
But there is one area where NHK is envious of KBS: the way it collects the television subscription fee. Since October 1994, the Korean broadcaster has imposed a levy of 2,500 won per household on electricity bills and people have no choice but to pay. The amount of money per household seems quite small, but the total revenue amounts to 530 billion won annually.
The subscription fee for NHK is voluntary. The fee is 1,345 yen per month or 1,395 yen if collected from a viewer’s home. Some 70 percent of households pay the fee, which means that even though NHK uses collectors in practice, 30 percent decline to pay the fee. It seems natural that the Japanese broadcaster is envious of its Korean counterpart, which can collect the subscription fee from everybody without any trouble.
However, KBS plans to raise the fee by 60 percent. The plan is to raise the fee from 2,500 won to 4,000 won and it has already been approved by the company’s board of directors. The company is trying to make sure a related bill is passed in the National Assembly this autumn.
Meanwhile, NHK is now working to lower the subscription fee by 5 to 10 percent. The company recently decided to include this measure in the company’s management plan for the next five years, which it will submit to the government in September.
Television viewers, scholars and civic groups oppose KBS’s plan to raise the fee. They maintain that the company must correct its political biases and bad management before trying to raise the fee. But KBS thinks differently. In a press conference last week, KBS President Jung Yun-joo said that such opposition stemmed from a lack of understanding about the realities of broadcasting.
Raising the subscription fee is bound to be a controversial issue. But before having debates on that, there is one big fault to be addressed. It is the system of collecting the television subscription fee. It is against market principles and should be abolished.
However enthusiastically a seller promotes his wares, a buyer has every right not to buy them. It is a consumer’s decision whether he buys certain goods or services. That is the most basic principle of the market economy. But in the current system for collecting the subscription fee, KBS tosses out its products and forces viewers to pay. It’s nothing but high-pressure salesmanship. The Fair Trade Commission forbids such behavior based on the law, but KBS, a public enterprise, takes no notice of that.
There is a legal regulation that allows the company to collect subscription fees. Lawmakers have closed their eyes to this contradiction and the innocent rank and file have paid the fee obediently. So, the company thinks TV viewers are easy to deal with and are moving forward with their plan to raise fees.
A lot of people do not watch television. Some say it is bad for their children’s education, some simply do not have time, some find there are few good programs to watch, some do not even have TV sets.
To impose the subscription fee on these people is the same as taking money from people who have not bought anything. It is amazing that no constitutional appeal has been filed against the fee so far.
These days, more than 90 percent of viewers have cable or satellite television. They pay for this, of course. In these circumstances, there is even less reason for KBS to take a subscription fee.
If it wants to receive a fee, it should rather negotiate with the cable or satellite broadcasters.
If the people are left to pay the fee voluntarily, KBS will certainly suffer. It will be harder to receive the fee and the company will have to hire lots of collectors. But these cannot be reasons to forcibly take money out of viewers’ pockets.
To have viewers pay the fee voluntarily is a good way to enforce fairness and neutrality in the broadcaster’s news programs.
I said earlier that some 70 percent of the Japanese people pay the fee to NHK now, but in the past more than 90 percent paid. Since 2005 NHK has been involved in a series of corruption scandals, so many people were disappointed with the company and refused to pay the fee.
KBS must stop imposing the fee and leave it to the people to decide if they will pay. If they do that, the company would be free to raise the fee by any amount it desires.

*The writer is the international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Shim Sang-bok
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