07 October 2008

Evolution of Media

It's late morning on October 8th, and I'm still sitting in the rural township I arrived in yesterday, watching some Go tournaments on TV.

Two news items first. First, the exchange rate is soaring, and it now costs well over 1,350 won to buy a US dollar, as opposed to under 1,000 won a few months ago. This is good news for my budget, as my US dollars will finally give me some buying power that I simply didn't have for the past few years, and I'll hopefully have money left over to forward to Barack Obama and No on 8, to counter President Lee's funding of their opponents. However, it's also very telling of Lee's mismanagement of the South Korean economy, though Lee continues to insist that the current difficulties faced by South Korea are external in nature, and that his tax cuts for the rich will go forward. I will continue to use a conversion factor of 1,000 won to a US dollar for this blog, as the math is much easier that way.

Second, the National League Chanpionship Series will feature the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Philadelphia Phillies. The Dodgers appear to be putting in their best performance since their World Series Championship twenty years ago; I wish them the best of luck. The local media here in South Korea also reports often on the Dodgers, though the games themselves are at odd times in the morning and I can't watch them, due to the time difference; this is due to the presence of Chan Ho Park, one of the few remaining South Koreans in Major League Baseball, who first started playing for the Dodgers in 1994 and recently returned there.

This brings me to the topic of media, courtesy of a public service ad that just ran on the Go TV. It was very telling of the evolution of television as mass media here. Here's an outline, with political commentaries added by me.

The first President of South Korea, reactionary Korean-American Syngman Rhee, did not have the luxury of spreading propaganda through television, as no stations existed then; he had to use Daehan News, a news shorts program shown at cinemas before each movie, instead. However, the rich would've been able to catch news coverage of the 1960 student revolution that overthrew Rhee and sent him packing back to the US, through their early, primitive black-and-white sets.

Later unitary executive, President Park Chung-hee, used the television more effectively, as a number of stations started broadcasting, and rising living standards put more television sets into the hands of even the middle class. But even the news of Park's assassination, in 1979, was broadcast in black-and-white.

Color television was the domain of the Chun Doo-hwan military coup regime; by that time, the television was a very powerful medium - so much so, that Chun shut down all stations, except KBS and MBC, soon after taking power. Stereo broadcasts and multi-track broadcasts (for an option of listening to the Chun propaganda in English or some other foreign language) later followed. The format used in South Korea has been NTSC, the same standard used in the US; this also ensured incompatibility with the European PAL standard used in North Korea, and made sure that South Koreans wouldn't be able to watch North Korean TV, inadvertently or intentionally. As a result, the rich in South Korea have traditionally preferred imported used TVs - first, American models like Zenith, then Japanese brands like Sony (as Japan is also NTSC), while the masses watched the cheaper domestic sets from Samsung, Goldstar, and Daewoo. A common experience at that time was to tune into Channel 2, AFKN (American Forces Korean Network), and watch English-language programming straight from the US, such as Jeopardy!, Wheel of Fortune, NBC Nightly News, and even David Letterman.

The civilian governments and the democracy that bloomed in the 1990s resulted in new stations, such as Seoul Broadcasting System (SBS), coming to the market, as well as the beginning of closed captioning. By that time, Daehan News ceased to exist, as everyone now had television sets at home; today, Daehan News has value only as historical archives. In 1995, cable television was legalized, and even more stations, notably news channel YTN, came online. AFKN went off-air, and became a cable channel.

The advent of digital high-definition broadcasting really changed the rules. In fact, the public service announcement was to remind me that NTSC signals will cease in 2012 - three years after the US. I don't know if the older NTSC sets will still work on cable, as will be the case in the US; in any case, I am seeing lots of old 1980s and 1990s NTSC TV sets for sale at used electronics stores. The switchover from analog tube TVs to digital flat-panel TVs also worked in favor of Samsung and Goldstar (now LG); their products have dominated the market worldwide, and well outsold the previous champ Sony. Here in South Korea, Samsung uses the PAVV brand for its digital TVs, while LG uses XCanvas; export models use the standard Samsung and LG brands. Even the rich, who have traditionally scorned domestic products in favor of imports (and continue to scorn top-notch Hyundai cars like the Genesis and the Veracruz, in favor of overpriced inferior import models), now watch PAVV TVs. (Samsung is preferred over LG among the rich, because Samsung is a nonunion shop, while LG is union.)