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Koreans Lambaste Murdoch Over DTH Plan

Seoul, South Korea-Critics are coming out of the woodwork against Star TV's impending arrival in South Korea.

A consortium led by Star TV, a News Corp. subsidiary, plans to transmit a direct-to-home platform of 80-plus channels starting in June 2001.

Some representatives of civic groups, academics, unions and cable operators said they consider the platform a threat to personal and national interests.

The loudest voices warned against sensationalist programming and said the network is run by a man whom they claimed is known for evading taxes, manipulating politicians, laying off workers and hostile takeovers. That man is none other than News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch.

"Only investments that benefit our culture and industry should be allowed," read a statement by the Korea Federation of Press Unions.

The People's Coalition for Media Reform called Murdoch "a speculator obsessed with money and power" and compared him to Western trade ships and gunboats that forced open Korea in the 19th century.

Industry observers, on the other hand, believe the big push in satellite broadcasting will spur competition among cable and terrestrial channels, improve programming and provide more options for viewers and advertisers.

The critics "don't exactly understand both sides of the broadcasting industry," said Min Gyung Sook of TNS Media Korea, a TV-ratings service. "They overemphasize the public interest while ignoring the fact that the industry needs profits to support itself. Both parts are equally important."

As for cultural invasion, that's "been going on for the last century," added Shin In Sup, professor of communications at Hallym University in Chunchon. Koreans already wear Western suits and attend Christian church, he noted.

In the world of TV, "The whole idea is to provide more choices to the consumers. The more choice, the better it is," he said.

But both sides agreed that new production facilities, a wide audience and a dearth of content make Korea fertile ground for Murdoch.

The government will decide later this year who wins the single license for DTH. The Star TV-led group, known as Korea Satellite Broadcasting Corp., is going up against a consortium including telco Korea Telecom. Some speculated that the two may even end up working together.

Star TV's entry would mark the first foreign investment in domestic media since a new broadcasting law raised the foreign-equity cap and legalized mergers between cable-network operators, infrastructure builders and programmers.

Only media organizations with foreign partners will be able to survive in the new environment, Chunbuk University professor of communications Kim Seung Soo said.

KSBC officials estimated that the platform can turn a profit in three to five years. By that time, its mostly urban audience should reach 1.2 million to 1.5 million viewers, they said.

Most Koreans watch the country's four terrestrial channels, while cable TV is undersubscribed because of poor quality. Cable customers could switch to the pay satellite service. "I think cable operators will be very threatened by this," Kim said.

News Corp. officials said their DTH group ultimately needs to use independent local producers for content. "This will stimulate the market, and viewers will receive better programs," Star TV sales manager for north Asia Kim Moon Won said.

Even the anti-Murdoch crowd agreed that foreign investment here would be good. Korean TV lacks variety and originality, and it is dominated by networks that pander to the government. Foreign-funded productions would "open the market and open the eyes" of Korea, Kim said.

Better programming will also benefit advertisers. The plethora of stations could help to combat increasing prices of advertising time on channels.

State-owned media rep firm Korea Broadcasting Advertising Corp. (KOBACO) will soon lose its lock on representing the country's terrestrial channels in the country.

KOBACO recently lifted price controls as part of an effort to adopt market-oriented practices-a move that could send prices higher amid strong demand for terrestrial TV. Demand for terrestrial ad time outstrips supply by a two-to-one margin.