The Korea Herald


'SNL Korea' lawsuit sheds light on streaming shows' working conditions

Experts say streaming service industry operates in regulatory blind spot

By Lee Yoon-seo

Published : Jan. 29, 2024 - 16:43

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Poster for Poster for "SNL Korea Season 4" (Coupang Play)

The legal disputes surrounding the popular Korean entertainment show "SNL Korea" is shedding light on the poor working conditions experienced by staff working at production companies that supply content to streaming services, according to experts, Monday.

South Korean production company Astory, which produces content for various streaming services, said on Thursday the company has filed a lawsuit claiming 7 billion won ($5.2 million) in damages for restraint of trade against CP Entertainment -- claiming that the Korean retail giant Coupang's entertainment arm had "stolen" its production staff.

Astory also accused its former employee, producer Ahn Sang-hwi, of breach of trust. Ahn is alleged to have helped in the establishment of CP Entertainment while employed at Astory and coerced other staff to move to CP Entertainment with him.

In response, Ahn and the former production staff of "SNL Korea" released a statement on Thursday, announcing that the decision to move companies came as Astory habitually failed to pay wages and production costs on time.

"I (Ahn) had repeatedly raised concerns about various issues such as Astory's continuous delay in paying production costs during my time at (the company). However, there was no improvement. As a result, I decided to resign after my employment contract expired to focus on the production of "SNL Korea" (in a new environment)," said Ahn in a statement released on Thursday.

"Astory is a giant content production company in Korea, having produced a slew of popular works such as 'Extraordinary Attorney Woo' and 'Kingdom,'" said Ahn.

According to Ahn, Astory has been abusing its power, given its position and influence in the industry.

"Astory is telling lies (that they have made timely payments), which can easily be disproved. There are numerous concrete pieces of evidence, including phone calls, KakaoTalk records and more that can substantiate this statement," said Ahn.

On Friday, Astory countered Ahn's statement in a separate statement.

"This incident centers around Coupang and Ahn's outright robbery of Astory's entire entertainment division after Astory, which is a small and medium-sized company, successfully resurrected the 'SNL' program that was discontinued in 2017 and turned it into a popular entertainment show," said an Astory official.

According to Astory, Ahn committed serious acts of breach of trust by actively assisting in the establishment of CP Entertainment, from September 2023 to December 2023.

"Beyond initiating the venture individually, he engaged in acts of breach of trust by aggressively recruiting all the employees of Astory's Production Team 2 to work for CP Entertainment. Consequently, Astory's entertainment division has been completely disintegrated," the statement read.

In a phone call with The Korea Herald on Thursday, a spokesperson for the former production staff of "SNL Korea" said the essence of the case lies in mistreatment and overworked production staff.

"The production staff, including Ahn, have been producing 'SNL Korea' for a very long time. However, at Astory, the team could not focus solely on producing 'SNL Korea.' The working environment at Astory was simply too difficult for the team to pursue the work the team wanted to do, which was producing 'SNL Korea,'" said the official.

"Because the copyright of 'SNL Korea' resides with Coupang Play, the (former) Astory employees decided to switch over to CP Entertainment to produce SNL Korea. The transfer process was official and legal, following the termination of employment contracts. However, ever since the team raised their voices about transferring, Astory has been threatening to hit them with lawsuits," she said.

On Jobplanet, a corporate data startup and human resources consultancy firm where employees anonymously review their companies, posts said that "employees (at Astory are treated as disposable commodities."

Other posts read "The teams in the company are not separated," and "The system to distribute work is non-existent. Only the people who work, work."

According to a report published by Film Industry Complaint Center released in November 2023, which surveyed 295 production staff in production companies supplying to streaming platforms and production staff at streaming platforms regarding their working conditions, the proportion of employees who said their payments had been delayed accounted for 21 percent.

In a separate category, 45 percent of the respondents also replied that they experienced harassment including "verbal abuse and humiliation" and "bullying" on working sites.

"For streaming services' series, as each production consists of 10 to 20 episodes, the production budget for such content is higher compared to movies. Therefore, it is difficult to attribute the issue of poor working conditions (at industries related to streaming services) solely to the financial constraints of production companies," the report stated.

The report added that the dismal working conditions can be the result of a lack of awareness among production companies and investors such as streaming platforms to protect workers, in addition to the tendency for production companies and streaming platforms to solely pursue productivity, while neglecting labor laws.

A former streaming service industry official on the condition of anonymity noted that as the concept of streaming service being a recent one, there are many regulatory blindspots.

"Currently, the streaming service industry is not subjected to the regulations of the Promotion of the Motion Pictures and Video Products Act, with the streaming service contents not being categorized as either films or broadcast content. As a result, the streaming service industry operates outside the existing framework of standard working contracts," she said.

Trailer for Trailer for "SNL Korea Season 4" (Coupang Play)