KBS set for a lonely battle in fight for higher TV license fees
The Korean Broadcasting System, better known as KBS, has a big goal for this year. Unfortunately, few people had a positive response when they heard the news that Korea's public TV network wants to raise TV license fees.
“To walk the path of TV license fee realization is our long-cherished mission,” KBS President Yang Seung-dong said on Jan. 4, publicly declaring his will to raise the TV license fee in his New Year’s address. Yang’s mention of TV license fees comes as a follow-up to the five missions that the network announced last year in July to innovate its management structure, which also included improving the human resources system and relinquishing any restrictions that go against the times.
"We put together a project team in July to look into how KBS could fortify its public missions and how much TV license fees we would need,” said Yang. “We aimed to bring this item to the board meeting in December, but had to pass it along to this year due to the rapid increase of Covid-19 cases. We will bring these items to the board meeting table in January [...] The outside factors are still rough but I believe that only through this process, can KBS develop and change.”
“TV license fee realization” sounds a little vague, but its essence is simple: to raise the amount of the monthly fee that any TV watcher must pay along with their electricity bills. Some say that we have only become newly accustomed to the art of paying for content with the advent of online platforms such as Netflix and Watcha, but the practice goes back decades to the 1960s.
The government started collecting TV license fees in 1963, two years after KBS was founded in 1961. Starting at 100 won ($0.09), the price was raised to 150 won in 1964, 200 won in 1965 and eventually reached the 2,500 won we pay today in 1981. The price has not been raised in 40 years and KBS would like to change that.
“The amount of TV license fees is overly unrealistic at the moment, seeing as how it has stayed the same at 2,500 won for 40 years since 1981, but during that same time, the amount of telecommunications bills rose by 2,800 percent and newspaper prices rose by 800 percent,” KBS explained as the reason for calling the goal a “realization.” “The realization of raising the TV license fee is crucial, especially at a time where the role of a public broadcaster becomes more demanding amid the development of cable channels and other commercial media such as OTT [over-the-top] services.”
In comparison, the license fees in other countries are considerably higher than the amount collected on color TVs dictated by the Korean law.
As of 2019, Britain’s BBC collected 154.50 pounds ($209) annually, which is 7.7 times higher than the Korean annual fee of 30,000 won, while Germany’s ZDF collected 8.9 times the amount with 210 euros ($255) and France’s FT collected 5.9 times the amount with 139 euros. There are 50 countries around the world that collect license fees, according to KBS.
Considering the 40-year inflation, KBS’s argument is sound. Yet, the public sentiment goes the other way, especially regarding two points: That people may own TV sets but do not watch the terrestrial nor cable channels on them, and that even if they do watch TV, they would like to pay the license fees separately from their electricity bill. The license fees have been charged jointly on people’s electricity bills by the Korea Electric Power Corporation (Kepco) since 1994. Kepco collects TV license fees from households that use more than 50 kilowatt hour (kWh) each month, "deeming that such electric usage would include a TV," according to Kepco.
In October 2019, an online petition on the Blue House website requested that TV license fees be separated from electricity bills along with “the right to refuse to pay the license fees” to the public broadcaster. The petition garnered 213,306 signatures, enough to garner a response from a Blue House official, who explained that the Constitutional Court ruled the collection of TV license fees and doing so through Kepco was constitutional — both in 2006 and 2016.
The government also explained that there are many related bills that have been put forward in the National Assembly to amend and “improve” the current law, but the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) says that paying through Kepco turns out to be the most efficient method possible according to a series of simulations they have trialed as part of research of other means of collecting fees.
The KCC is in charge of reviewing a proposal to increase the license fee when it is submitted to them by KBS, then passing it along to the National Assembly, which has the ultimate say in the process. Currently, Kepco takes 6.15 percent of all fees collected for commission, EBS channel takes 3 percent from the remainder and KBS gets the rest.
KBS’s budget for 2021 has been set at 1.497 trillion won, a reduction of 58.6 billion from 2020, of which 45 percent, or 690 billion won, is to come from TV license fees, 241.3 billion won from advertisements and 5.66 percent from other sources. KBS endeavors to increase the percentage of its TV license income to 70 percent.
“We are looking into ways of separating the bill from the electricity bill,” said an official from the KCC. “But our trial results indicate that by doing so, the commission charge would likely go up if KBS does the collecting or finds another party to do so, thereby reducing the useable amount of TV license fees in total. We feel the need to change the way that public broadcasters are run, including their budget structure.”
Another point of contention relates to those that even own a TV or those that do but only use it to watch internet content, but still must pay TV license fees. To prove that they don’t own a TV set, individuals must report their case to their local Kepco branch, which will dispatch authorities to see if they in fact are telling the truth. Even if they do not watch TV channels but own a TV monitor, they must still pay.
"The Broadcasting Act does not specify what defines as a TV set, so we have no choice but to depend on rational interpretation," KBS said. "As of now, our biggest teller is whether the [TV set] carries out the essential role of a TV set, that is to receive terrestrial channels on time and people can choose channels. However, the truth is that the reality in which there are a variety of devices that can receive televised content has been invented since 2000 when the Broadcasting Act was established. We have been requesting that the KCC defines what counts as TV sets for the law, which is the case in other countries, to solve this problem."
Though paying for TV license fees when they do not watch public TV channels or TV programs at all may feel unfair to some, TV license fees are not paid as the price for the consumption of content produced by KBS or EBS. It is a quasi-tax that’s used to operate a country’s public broadcaster that does the job that other private TV channels or companies cannot and everyone, not just TV owners, should pay altogether, according to Bae Jin-ah, a professor of the department of visual studies at Kongju National University.
“Society needs a public broadcaster and that very broadcaster needs to stabilize its financial structure,” said Bae. “One of the reasons people do not want to pay is because they’re disappointed in KBS. So what’s in order is not to abolish the TV license fees, but come to a common understanding of the role and value of a public broadcaster and make sure that it fulfills its public duties. The methods of how and how much will need to be discussed, but society needs to come to agree on the need for a public broadcaster and its role.”
Kim Seong-cheol, a professor in the school of media and communication at Korea University, also agreed that a public broadcaster should run on TV license fees by more than just people who watch KBS or EBS. But that doesn’t mean that KBS should ask for more, he says.
“There would be many reasons that KBS is in need of more budget, but it should first look into more ways of bettering its management structure — not just ask for more money,” said Kim. “The public should not be in charge of making up for their faults without them improving. But still, a public broadcaster creates public content that’s used for keeping the values that others cannot, such as diversity. Whether a person actually watches TV or not is not important, especially in this age where we have access to content through diverse platforms.”
BY YOON SO-YEON [email@example.com]
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