This is an overview of KBS headquarters in Yeouido, Seoul. KBS TV started broadcasting in January 1962. / Korea Times File
By Andrei Lankov
In January 1962, South Koreans who had a TV set at home (a very small group) switched them on for the first time to watch the programs broadcasted by KBS-TV. The dawn of the TV age had finally arrived in Korea after a few delays.
Admittedly, KBS had predecessors. Indeed, TV broadcasting in Korea began a few years earlier, in 1956, when a local TV company, known by its identity call-sign as HLKZ-TV, went on air. However, the debut of the HLKZ-TV was a failure. Back in the 1950s, South Korea was a very poor place, its per capita income being well below that of Nigeria and Papua New Guinea.
Therefore, only a tiny fraction of Koreans could afford a TV set. In 1956, there were an estimated 300 sets in Seoul, and by early 1962 the number reached a mere 8,000.
This meant that TV broadcasting remained commercially unviable, since it was almost impossible to find advertisers, and the government did not do much to support the new media.
So, HLKZ-TV changed owners and names, suffered from a serious stroke of bad luck (a fire in 1959 destroyed its small studio), and finally collapsed altogether. Not many people even noticed its demise in 1960.
However, things took a different turn in 1961. In May, the Korean military overthrew a democratic but weak government, and the country entered the age of military rule, which lasted for some 25 years.
The new rulers believed in development and propaganda, and they saw TV as both a useful indoctrination tool and source of entertainment. Hence, they decided to start regular TV broadcasts via the government-controlled KBS company.
Commercial TV stations appeared a few years later: in the late 1960s, when MBC-TV and TBC-TV made their debut.
The subsequent two decades were the time when TV took over Korean society. Its growth reflected the record-breaking performance of the Korean economy at large: throughout the 1960-1980 period, the average annual increase in the GDP approximated 8 percent.
Koreans worked hard, but they also were looking for entertainment, and TV could deliver entertainment straight to their homes. The fast rise of private incomes meant that an increasing number of Koreans could afford it.
By 1970, the number of TV sets had jumped from fewer than 10,000 eight years earlier to 379,000, and by 1980 there were 5,967,000.
In the early 1960s, only the very rich boasted a TV, by 1970 a TV set at home became a sign of moderate affluence (TV sets were owned by 6.4 percent of all households), and by 1980 only the poorest families could not afford one; by that time, a great majority of Korean houses (79.1 percent) owned a TV set. Nowadays, each household in Seoul has an average of 1.6 TVs.
The 1970s was the era of TV dramas. Nowadays, those dramas do not look particularly impressive, but back then these simple shows enjoyed tremendous popularity.
Sufficient to say that in October 1974, the Seoul Police Department warned that people should be on alert when the popular dramas were broadcast, since experienced burglars used these time slots to raid houses.
Even if the owners were at home, they were so captivated by the show that they did not pay any attention to anything else.
It is remarkable that South Korea was very late to switch to color broadcasting; until December 1980, only black-and-white programming was permitted. The government regulations were a part of the savings promotion policy. In those days, the government did everything to drive the savings rate high, discouraging “luxurious consumption.”
The “luxurious consumption” was defined quite broadly; until 1968, for example, even coffee was considered a “luxury product” and hence could not be legally sold in the country.
The color TV sets, quite expensive in those days, were also treated as unnecessary items. So, by the late 1970s, South Korea was known internationally as a major producer of color TV sets, but Koreans themselves had to use the outdated black-and-white technology.
Only in December 1980 was color TV in Korea finally approved by the authorities.
Once again, the change was brought by the political disruption: Gen. Chun Doo Hwan, a new military strongman who took power in 1980, knew that he was not popular with his people, so he deliberately pursued the so-called “3s policy” (the 3s stand for sex, screen and sport). The policy implied a relaxation of hitherto strict social controls.
Gen. Chun hoped that the people would be too distracted to participate in political movements.
So, the TV broadcast switched to color, broadcast time increased and entertainment programs began to multiply. This did not save the dictatorship, but it clearly helped Korean TV.
After the military rule ended, new stations mushroomed, and the spread of high-quality cable TV changed the landscape again in the late 1990s.
Now, in spite of the growth of the Internet and multimedia (and the remarkable revival of Korean cinema), TV remains the major medium for both information and entertainment and seems to be positioned to keep this role for the foreseeable future.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org