▲ LG’s retro television, Serie 1. Photo courtesy LG

Is the recession boosting television viewing? According to the Nielsen Three Screen Report for the fourth quarter of 2009, the average American watched more than 153 hours of TV a month, about an hour more than the same period the previous year. The three screens of the report referred to televisions, computers and mobile phones, the prime channels on which to view video content.

The trend towards an ever increasing presence of television among contemporary media consumers is being replicated here across the Pacific as well, in the bandwidth capital of the world.

In terms of its share of audience hours, network television has been on a down-ward trend in Korea for years, losing ground to the Internet, cable television and other new media platforms.

Roughly 70 to 80 percent of daily hot queries on Naver, Korea’s top search engine, are regurgitations of issues discussed earlier on net-work television, defying the early optimism of the media pundits who envisioned that the Internet would offer an alternative channel in setting key public agenda.

This is puzzling since media analysts have been unanimous in their projection that the proliferation of the Internet and the broadband net-work will inevitably chip away at conventional TV viewing time. Television is here to stay, they predicted, but it will be reduced to a hum in the back-ground, except being called upon occasionally in times of national crisis to provide common topics and synchronous conversation for the public. On the contrary, television is regaining its strength as a leading media outlet, boosted by the asynchronous reverberation of the Internet.

Television’s unrelenting clout as the custodian of society’s shared conversations is even more pronounced in Korea, despite the full advance of the broadband Internet here for the past 10 years. Perhaps, Korea’s centralized message dissemination system may have helped. The content produced for the networks’ Seoul stations dominates the screens of almost 99 percent of regional affiliates, reaching as far away as Los Angeles, where there is a huge and vibrant ethnic Korean community.

The resurgence of television in Korea is largely indebted to networks’ prescient decision to embrace the Web instead of fighting it. From the early days of the Internet, KBS, MBS and SBS, the top three television networks, released almost all of their scheduled programs on the Web as video-on-demand. The networks opened up most of their regular programs for free on the Net, but even when they charged for some popular content, they almost always offered users an option to skirt around payment in return for participating in campaigns with their sponsors.

As TV fans get addicted to the asynchronous viewing of the top network shows, however, they usually ended up paying hard cash to enjoy more high-quality programs available in high definition format. SBS, which has been consistently more enthusiastic than its competitors about the online content business, earned more than 43 billion won (about $38.3 million) in revenue on the Web last year, whereas it grossed 607 billion won from its television arm.

For starters, television stations open dedicated program Web sites to capitalize on the Net’s viral power for viewers. Korean networks usually start to air big budget mini-series or dramas when roughly one-third of the production is completed at the time of the premiere. Producers earn some leeway this way to fine-tune the story based on online feedback. Plots can be changed at the request of fans and unpopular cast members may be ousted after overnight rating results are released.

As the networks cut down on their production budgets in the ongoing financial crisis, product placement is emerging as a promising alternative to fill the deficit. However, fleeting exposure in the midst of a show fails to catch the attention of all but a few sensitive eyes. The Web strongly provides the missing link here. Producers can direct viewers to look up the program homepage for more detailed information about featured products, services and places.

The mutually beneficial relationship between television and the Web can go only as far as its core audience is willing to accept the Internet, however. It is no wonder that MBC and SBS, whose core audience spans from their 20s to 40s, the most Web-savvy viewers, are striving much harder to make full use of the Internet, whereas KBS, with its core audience in their 40s to 60s and practically glued to their televisions, does not try as hard.

The space-shattering and interactive nature of the Web has been a great boon for radio. Radio was already a highly interactive media even before the birth of the Web, thanks to its extensive use of live telephone conversations with listeners.

By incorporating the Web, MBC’s MINI Internet radio and KBS’s KONG are reaching listeners in the far corners of the world, breaking down the traditional boundaries of the network constituency. Inevitably, some top radio shows have started to experiment with video streaming on the Web as well. In the future, radio show hosts may be judged by their looks as much as by their voice talent.

The rise of citizen journalism and the shifting landscape of the media leader-ship in the wake of Seoul’s broadband revolution seemed to have signaled the demise of the television medium. However, television has made a spectacular comeback and has become relevant again by internalizing the hidden desires of the audience as expressed on the Net.

If networks are brave enough to look through the hype and zero in on the changing nature of the audience, the Web will soon prove itself to be their best friend, not a foe.

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