A unique television channel under threat

The withdrawal of government funding threatens South Korea's innovative RTV, writes ELLIE RENNIE PRESS and broadcasting institutions the world over are struggling to survive in the turbulent climate we call “media convergence.” So what’s the big deal about one new name on the endangered media list? Unfortunately, the television channel under threat this time is South Korea’s RTV and it is a rare species as far as broadcasters go. The station provides access, funding and training to producers from all walks of life and strives to assist underrepresented communities. Until now, RTV and its programmers survived off money from satellite provider SkyLife and the Korean Communications Commission (KCC). The money from KCC will dry-up in a month’s time, leaving only the SkyLife funding (around 400 million Won), which is barely enough to cover transmission costs. Korean media activists, who fought long and hard to establish and maintain the channel, are now desperately looking for a means to keep RTV alive. I first visited Seoul in autumn of 2007 to participate in RTV’s fifth birthday celebrations. Ellie Rennie and others at the 2007 celebration of RTV.

I was invited to speak about community media in my country, along with six other international alternative media pioneers and researchers (DeeDee Halleck, Supinya Klangnarong, Jon Stout, Katherin Araujo, Adilson Cabral, Kate Coyer and Gabi Hadl). At the massive banquet dinner we stood in front of towering wreathes of flowers and ribbons – gifts from various government departments and corporations. We listened to enthusiastic speeches as DeeDee went up on stage to cut a large jelly-like rice cake. It looked to us as though RTV had a bright future and wide support. Public access television (also known as community television) is not an easy project to undertake. I have visited stations around the globe and seen only the occasional success amongst countless variations (there are over 2000 access channels in the United States alone). Before YouTube, public access television was the only systematic means for non-professionals to screen DIY videos. Today, the more successful access stations do more than YouTube, performing a curatorial role whilst still adhering to community governance principles. When the formula is right, a community television channel can be kaleidoscope of local culture, an industry training ground and an important tool for social movements. The Koreans were late starters in the community TV game.

After a couple of shaky years, RTV did their research and consulted with communities and media centres at home and abroad. By the time it turned five, RTV had pretty much hit upon the perfect model. Here’s how it works: RTV is a cable and satellite provided, non-profit organisation, committed to openness, independence and fairness. By “independence” they mean that the programming and operations of the station are free from political and economic interests. “Openness” describes the access policy, whereby members of the general public can submit programs for screening, free of charge. “Fairness,” however, is what distinguishes RTV from many other community television channels. To achieve this, RTV established two committees to oversee program planning, selection and grants. These committees are intentionally separate from station management and give priority to underprivileged and minority groups as well as issues not dealt with in the mainstream media. By providing funding, training and free equipment loans to programmers, RTV has nurtured small production groups committed to documenting the things that really matter. Regular shows include migrant and Korean workers’ news, disabled rights and media education. When I visited in 2007, RTV had a budget of 3.17 billion won ($A3 million), including 1.5 billion won ($A 1.6 million) in grants from the government’s Broadcasting Promotion Fund. Approximately 800 million won ($A900,000) went directly to programmers. I learnt of RTV’s dramatic change of fortune at a symposium in Seoul this month, sponsored by the newly merged Broadcasting-Telecommunications Commission. Our host was Kim Myoung Joon, or “MJ” to his Western friends, director of the community media centre MediAct. MJ expects that RTV’s staff will try to keep the station running on volunteer time for a few months at least. As Korea has a compulsory redundancy policy, when staff officially leave then the station assets will need to be sold to cover their redundancy packages. In order to avoid that, station workers will probably live off welfare payments while they try to find alternative revenue sources. So why was RTV’s government-derived budget terminated? South Korea elected a new president, Lee Myang-bak, in December 2007. The former CEO of Hyundai has been pursuing conservative, free-market policies since he came to power, including the controversial free trade agreement with the US and the importation of American beef. A publicly supported, community-run television channel doesn’t fit within President Lee’s national vision, apparently. Looking back at my photos from RTV’s fifth birthday a year ago, I now think of funeral wreaths when I see the towers of flowers in the banquet hall. Some of those gifts were delivered by the same corporations that support President Lee, or by government agencies that will administer the station’s demise. But it’s not over yet. RTV has that amazing Korean combination of activism and hard work on its side. And although RTV may be endangered, the Korean alternative media movement is growing stronger. • by Ellie Rennie