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[Editorial] Dispute over TV license fee

Government should rethink mandatory license fee for KBS and state-funded media

A new round of disputes over South Korea’s mandatory TV license fee is set to flare up following a landmark move in France.

The French National Assembly voted Saturday to abolish the TV license fee that finances public broadcasting. Under the bill, aimed at addressing the rising cost of living and the license fee, France now appears to be on track to end the audiovisual license fee policy and allow 23 million households to stop paying 138 euros ($140) per year, starting from this October.

A demise or a deep cut of the long-disputed TV license fee is not limited to France. In Britain, the public broadcaster BBC will have to make deep cuts to its budget as the British government plans to freeze its funding for the next two years. The license fee for the BBC is scheduled to be abolished in 2027.

Other advanced countries such as the Netherlands, Israel and Canada had already killed off the state funding system for public broadcasters largely because policymakers and viewers alike did not find a convincing reason to pay for limited public stations at a time when they can surf hundreds of channels on cable networks and an explosively growing pool of video content on streaming services such as Netflix.

In the United States, public broadcasters depend largely on voluntary donations from viewers as the government prefers market principles to funding the broadcasting sector artificially.

Japan is also making a similar move to shrink its funding for NHK. The public broadcaster is scheduled to announce details about a cut in the license fee this fall, and the reduced fee will go into effect from next year. Japanese media reported that the TV license fee -- currently set at 1,225 yen ($8.94) per month -- would be cut by about 10 percent, and that one of NHK’s satellite channels will be shuttered.

The move came as the Japanese public’s negative perception about the TV license fee mounted. The license fee collection rate, for instance, slumped to 78.9 percent last month, according to NHK.

Only South Korea’s public broadcaster is bucking the trend, stirring up a controversy, as the Korean Broadcasting System, better known as KBS, is pushing to raise the mandatory license fee despite strong opposition from viewers.

KBS’ plan to raise the fee is particularly troublesome, as Korean viewers are being forced to pay the TV license fee as part of their electricity bills. This is unlike in other countries, where the fee is collected separately from other utility rates. This peculiar policy has long generated complaints from viewers skeptical about the public broadcaster’s role in the country. Moreover, even those who do not have a TV set have to go through a difficult and cumbersome process to legitimately avoid paying the fee.

One indication about the public’s disenchantment about the license fee is that over 200,000 people signed an online petition in October 2019 calling for the government to separate the KBS license fee from the electricity bill.

On Tuesday, the ruling People Power Party said it will push for a plan to separate the KBS license fee from the electricity bill, with one lawmaker from the party criticizing what he claims were KBS’ “unfair” broadcasts.

Meanwhile, a bill to raise the KBS monthly license fee from 2,500 won ($1.90) to 3,800 won is now pending at the National Assembly. But a survey conducted by the Korea Press Foundation last year showed that 81.4 percent of respondents are opposed to any raise of the KBS license fee, which was first introduced in 1963 and has been frozen since 1981.

The People Power Party also questioned why taxpayer money should be paid to Yonhap News. Last year, the government paid a total of 32.8 billion won for subscribing to Yonhap’s news service, even though its news reports are also available for free on portals and its website.

The government should carefully consider whether the country truly needs to keep the mandatory license fee for KBS and the funding system for other state-supported media, taking into account their roles and the taxpayer’s burden.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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