HAVE YOU ever heard of infotainment? It is a mixture of “information” and “entertainment,” and it refers to a fusion genre of TV program that has been created by either adding factors of entertainment to educational programs or adding educative factors to entertainment programs. Programs that you may have heard of would be "Sponge" (KBS2), "Vitamin" (KBS2), "Jjak" (MBC), "Sseol-jeon" (JTBC), and so on. The term infotainment seems extremely ideal in that viewers can learn while having fun, but the categorization of "infotainment" often arouses controversy. This ambiguousness is becoming problematic not only in the broadcasting industry, but also in parts of the Korean society.
Infotainment: beginning and now
Before we get into the problems, understanding more about infotainment seems necessary. You may have never heard of the term "infotainment," if you are one of the 71% of respondents of the survey researched by the Yonsei Annals who said "no" to the question "Have you ever heard of the word 'infotainment?’." However, the type of TV program that the term refers to is not exactly a whole new idea. Naming the very first infotainment program can be controversial due to the ambiguousness of the term itself, but "Star GO GO" (SBS) was the first program to introduce them as an infotainment. The program made its first appearance in January, 2002 and sought to introduce promising occupations for the teenagers by testing stars' aptitude and potential capacities. Not much prominent infotainment shows appeared after 2002, but the term soon began to be widely used among the broadcasting industries between 2005 and 2006. This period was basically the first heyday of infotainment, especially in KBS. "Sponge" (KBS2), "Sang-Sang Plus" (KBS2), "Vitamin" (KBS2) etc. were all very popular infotainment programs that not only made the viewers to laugh but also helped them learn.
However, in 2007, a completely new paradigm swept the broadcasting industry of Korea. The so-called "real-variety" programs shoved away infotainment programs and gained huge popularity. Real-variety which is a combination of "reality" and "variety," focuses on showing stars' life without affectation, and unlike infotainment programs, the main and sole focus was to make viewers laugh. In this period, MBC took over KBS's place and programs like "Mu-han-do-jeon" (MBC) was widely loved, and gradually all three main broadcasting companies began to produce similar programs. As a result, the infotainment program which once took the center stage soon disappeared with the low ratings compared to real-variety programs. Along with Real-variety programs, audition programs that star ordinary but talented people also gained great popularity starting from Super Star K (M.net), and the format quickly being adapted by different broadcasting companies.
What goes around comes around. Recently, beginning from 2012, infotainment programs seems to be ready to repeat its' heyday of 2005 and 2006. Variety programs in general are walking a downward slope, including real-variety shows and audition programs; the ratings have declined steeply and audition programs also are losing fans season by season. In this situation, infotainment is the new program on the rise. The one program that instigated the rise of infotainment program, shockingly, is from cable TV channels, not the terrestrial TV channels. The "Hwang-geum-al" (MBN) is a program in which "masters" of different fields of study with guest appearances and conversations with stars. The program, for the first time after the establishment of JTBC, MBN, Channel A, and TV Joseon, the total TV program channels* reached 5% ratings according to AGB Nielsen Media Research. The program is holding onto the first place among all cable TV programs, and sometimes even exceeded the ratings of programs broadcasting in terrestrial TV channels on the same time slot. With the huge success of "Hwang-geum-al," infotainment programs again came to be a main interest of the broadcasting industry: "Jjak" (MBC), "Sseol-jeon" (JTBC), "Man's Fate" (KBS2), the programs that seek to give people a lasting message that transcends a one moment laugh, all have successfully won over the audiences. "The human condition" (KBS2), especially is showing positive response in environment and energy industry, being awarded "AIBD World TV award - Science, Environment Program" and "Asia Rainbow TV awards - Infotainment program." It surely must be making a change in the society, and serving as a genuine and helpful infotainment program.
Reasons behind the big return
Then, how could infotainment programs that once faded out from the general trend make its big return possible? The practicality and usefulness can be dubbed as one of the main attractive features of infotainment. Educational Programs on TV are usually very formal and somewhat dry since the programs are loyal to their original purpose to educate their viewers. Infotainment programs, on the other hand, seek to loosen up the usual stiffness in learning and attempts to bring down the intensity, thus angling larger range of viewers. Unlike educational programs that focus more on providing professional knowledge and information, infotainment programs are more interested in giving out practical information that are useful in everyday lives. A culture critique Lee Taek-gwang saw the success of infotainment, especially "Hwang-geum-al" as following in Yeonhap News: "In the program, you can see the 'masters' bickering. The viewers, seeing this, will accept the information given in the program as absolute truth," he added "this leaves some space for viewer's participation in the program." Moreover, the public have become tired of the variety programs where celebrities talk about their private lives or play entertaining games in the show. Kim Si-joong, (CP, MBN) said in an article of Yeonhap News, "The professional, but easily acceptable information is grabbing the public's attention." Surely, both celebrities and professionals appear in infotainment programs, hence reaching a happy medium between variety and educational program.
Another important factor that brought about the thriving of infotainment is the expanding influence of entertainment programs which has even reached the area of educational programs. Moreover, the variety programs which can be easily perceived by the general public can quickly spread through SNS and portal websites. Variety program clips that play about two to three minutes are often posted on SNS and the internet users can freely watch those short clips to kill time. The speed that variety programs spread around people's smartphones and computers is extremely fast. Due to this speed, it is often used as a means of PR whether it is for politicians, musicals, newly broadcasting drama, newly releasing album or a book. Therefore, the whole popular culture and its circulation throughout the society have become very much reliant on variety programs. As a result, TV programs that deal with serious issues and educational contents are being left out. Educational programs, however, cannot provide good amount of information or convey the full message with such short clips or captured images. Therefore, in order for educational TV programs to survive, they are intently adding entertaining elements in the shows. This is a matter of survival among programs, and infotainment clearly is a good alternative.
But, can infotainment be the all-powerful?
Infotainment programs can be helpful and educational, but many are worrying about the excessive softening process of the educative function. The easy approach to professional and difficult knowledge is undoubtedly a positive change, but at times, infotainment programs have a possibility of barely portioning their program on providing information or educating viewers. Infotainment programs which allow open discussion on debatable topics are prone to be led to a false conclusion. Therefore, the programs do not provide a strict answer, but attempt to find a convergence of different opinions; in this process, the program might flow to provide betwixt and between answers. With the exponential rise in number of infotainment programs, they face the danger of becoming provocative TV shows existing only to serve the purpose of promoting popular stars and culture. Lee Jong-hyuk (Prof., Dept. of Multimedia and Videos, Kwangun University) said in an interview in KBS TV news: "As each and every member of the society becomes more and more accustomed to current form of entertainment-centered variety programs, earnest attitudes will constantly decrease and when such a decline continues, the society will lose its' power to create a common discourse to resolve social issues." For a brighter society, leading infotainment to a more entertainment-wise program is a positive change, yet it is time to look back and self-examine if the educational values that we must pursue are wearing out.
Regulations promising diversity of TV programs already exist. Under Article 50 of Korean Broadcasting Act enforcement ordinance, the three different types of TV programs: education, reporting, and entertainment should all make up balanced portion of the entire television programs. However, educational programs are losing its' footing more and more as entertainment programs are dominating the industry. Also, to prevent entertainment program from dominating, variety programs are regulated to take up less than 50% of the entire schedule. Critical views exist that some infotainment programs are categorized as educational program in order to avoid being contrary to laws and regulations. Some infotainment programs do focus on the educational aspects, but many programs can raise controversy. For example, "Jjak," (MBC) a program in which single men and women gather together in a space separated from the society to find their true love, was categorized as an educational program. Really, what cultural and educational thoughts can the program provoke? The infotainment boom, might actually just be another entertainment boom in disguise. A strict regulation and criteria needs to be established to prevent such trickery by broadcasting companies trying to circumvent the law Of course, dichotomizing the two is impossible, yet the shrewd tactics needs to be regulated.
* * *
Surely, if infotainments can serve both functions of education and entertainment entirely, why would they be ever regulated? However, most of today's Korean infotainment programs are focusing more on entertaining the viewers. A PD have once wrote in his twitter, that only the viewers themselves can change what kind of TV shows dominate the broadcasting industry. As audiences, we have the right to watch diverse TV programs, but we ourselves our discarding it. We must remember his tweet. The society is a place that can run best where laughter and seriousness both exists. Since SNS was one of the main driving forces that strengthened the influence of variety programs, the younger generation, including college students' attention on the issue is also necessary.