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(News Focus) New TV channels launched amid expectations and concerns
By Shim Sun-ah
SEOUL, Dec. 1 (Yonhap) -- Thursday's simultaneous launch of five new cable television channels is expected to shake up the nation's entire media landscape as well as the broadcasting market.

   Four general-programming channels -- "MBN," "JTBC," "CSTV" and "Channel A" each run by influential dailies Maeil Business Newspaper, JoongAng Ilbo, Chosun Ilbo and Donga Ilbo -- and one all-news channel, "news Y" by the nation's leading wire service Yonhap News Agency, kicked off their operations, boasting brilliant lineups of programs and TV stars and promising to offer differentiated content and programming strategies.

   The launch comes nearly two and a half years after the government revised a set of media laws with parliamentary approval to lift the ban on newspapers running television stations in order to globalize the domestic media industry, create more jobs and increase diversity of public opinions.

   It also comes one year after the nation's communications and broadcasting regulator selected the five companies as operators of the new channels.

   Thus far, only three terrestrial broadcasters -- KBS, MBC and SBS -- have been allowed to offer general programming ranging from news to documentaries, dramas, entertainment show programs and sports.

   The new entrants into the general programming TV sector are expected to break the market dominance of the three existing networks, encouraging them to produce more creative and higher quality content to compete with the rookie channels.

   At the same time, the competition will further broaden viewers' choice of channels.

   Since cable television channels are relatively free from the strict broadcasting law, many view the four new channels as having much more room for trying out creative and new programs than the three TV networks. Cable channels can broadcast 24 hours a day and have commercial breaks while ground-air TV stations cannot. Cable broadcasters have to fill only 0.05 percent of their broadcasting hours each month with public ads, but the rate for terrestrial broadcasters is at least 0.2 percent.

   Some analysts forecast the general-programming channels can have as much influence as terrestrial TVs, citing the fact that all paid TV platforms are obliged to send general-programming channels to all of their subscribers.

   There are more reasons supporting such positive expectations. The channels can reach the nation's approximately 15 million cable TV viewing households without having to build their own broadcasting networks and are also available on satellite broadcasting and IPTV (internet protocol television) channels. They were assigned to low channel numbers preferred by broadcasters as so-called "golden channels," a major point brought up by liberal news companies and opposition lawmakers arguing that the four conservative newspapers received "preferential treatment" under the conservative government led by President Lee Myung-bak. JTBC has been given channel 15 while MBN has been assigned to channel 16. The numbers of Channel A and CSTV are 18 and 19, respectively.

   But some other experts point out that there can be a dark side to the competition, warning that overheated competition among the new channels for audience ratings and advertisements will instead lower the overall quality of TV programs.

   "Currently, the general-programming cable channels copy programming of existing terrestrial broadcasters," Park Yeong-seon, an activist of the People's Coalition for Media Reform, said in a newspaper interview. "The number of channels increased, but it isn't likely to greatly broaden viewers' choice."

   The local advertisement industry forecast that the emergence of the new TV stations will be a disaster to the ad market despite expectations by the communications and broadcasting regulator that it will create a new ad market.

   Industry people contend that the size of the ad market will stay the same, and the new channels will only reduce the share of the pie received by smaller and less influential news media because the new channels affiliated with large newspapers will be able to quickly make inroads into the limited market.

   "Contrary to the authority's expectations for a larger pie, chances are that the new general-programming channels and existing networks will compete fiercely for the limited ad market amid the slumping economy," an ad company worker said requesting not to be named.

   The journalists' union began a general strike timed with the launch of the new channels, opposing the channels which they argue will only increase the power of the four newspapers that own them.

   A total of 112 unions, including those of dailies, TV and radio broadcasters and media-related organizations, will join the strike, according to the National Union of Media Workers.

   Some smaller newspapers, including Kyunghyang Shinmun, Hankyoreh and Hankook Ilbo, even left a segment of their ad sections blank in a strong expression of protest against the new channels.

   "We came to stage the strike because the launch of the four general programming broadcasters is sure to distort the country's media industry landscape," Lee Gang-taek, chief of the journalists' union, claimed in a statement.