WHEN TURNING on the TV screen, we are presented with a plethora of choices, ranging from imminent news, entertaining TV series, to informative documentaries. Those in charge of captivating the audience with numerous visuals are Producer-Directors, commonly known as PDs in South Korea. PD, the all-knowing omnipotent presence in media, is a popular career option amongst students in Korea, and students at Yonsei University are no exception. To look into the ins and outs of the admired profession, The Yonsei Annals interviewed Jeong Jae-eung, a PD who has been serving in Educational Broadcasting System (EBS) for over 25 years. Orchestrating a number of programs ranging from documentaries to children’s TV sectors, Jeong shared both the challenges and perks of his career, as well as words of advice for future prospective PDs.
What does a PD do?
Annals: PD is a highly popular job in South Korea. Can you please tell the reader which qualities constitute a PD and what its main responsibilities are?
Jeong: PD is an acronym for Producer-Director. Unlike Hollywood and other countries’ media systems, Korea and Japan are the two unique countries that adopted the concept of PD, where one executive is in charge of both producing and directing. As both cultures are deeply rooted in the convention of one-chief-does-it-all, and with the usual limited budget, one person ends up managing all aspects that fall under the umbrella of production.
The production agenda consists of five principal steps: idea planning, idea development, production, post-production, and delivery (broadcasting). Although there are directors responsible for each branch, a PD is responsible for the management and maintenance of all the elements listed above. With great responsibility comes great pressure; thus, I often find it challenging to solely focus on the content itself.
I like to think of my job as a creator. Similar to how an artist paints on a canvas and later presents the finished work at exhibitions, a PD plans programs and delivers the final product to the audience over the screen. What differentiates PDs from artists is that, while artists attribute personal meanings to their works, the messages that PDs give must serve the mass, not themselves. The main responsibility of a PD is not to create content that sells, but to trigger a change in mindsets that may drive improvements in society. In short, PDs work for the better of the collective rather than for the individual.
In the process of creation, furthermore, a PD must have a good eye for sharp and objective observation. For instance, a keen-sight, like a good reflex, is essential because a PD must be able to quickly identify an unexpected problem and respond to it by adjusting already existing plans. A cross-sight is also important, as PDs must know how to observe a matter from multiple perspectives, considering all factors that go into the production, such as music, lighting, and dialogue. And of course, a PD must acquire good insight, because managing multiple tasks requires constant decision making.
Annals: There are different types of PDs for different fields. Could you please describe the department you work for?
Jeong: I started as a PD for the children’s TV sector at EBS because I was designated into that field in my early stages. Now I direct documentaries, which is a pretty significant jump I did not expect to make.
Documentaries are more diverse than what people usually assume. Just to name a few, there are documentary films, narrative-style films, and educational animation, which all fall under the comprehensive term of documentary. I tend to focus more on producing documentary films, which are fusions of fictional skit and informational analysis, while heavily anchored in historical facts. The documentaries I design portray stories based on true history, and interviews of professionals are added in between scenes for further explanation. I have been serving as a documentary PD in EBS for over ten years now because I would like for people to use history as a method to expand their knowledge and perceptions. An increased curiosity for history makes us wonder: have we really made any progress since? Or are we merely repeating the mistakes of the past; if so, why? The seeds of change are planted only if these questions are addressed among the mass.
The productions I construct must fulfill three components, so I refer to my work as tricolor documentary. The first factor is novelty. If the content is not unique and distinguishable from existing content, I do not find a reason to create a mere copy. Second is entertainment. In this highly digitalized age where people can easily access videos through SNS and YouTube, many share a stereotype that documentaries are relatively boring. However, documentaries can be very interesting too and my desire to break such stereotype is the principal reason I still produce documentary films. They are a blend of both plot and information, which can be more attractive and easier to understand than a dull narration of historical information. The last component is meaning. Documentaries must leave a lasting impression, causing a change in perspective in the viewer. So unless all of the three requirements are fulfilled, I do not initiate documentary production.
Professionalism is important, at last. A PD must know how to manage all genres. In my case, I started as a PD for children’s shows and now I direct documentaries on early civilizations. Unexpected transitions happen, and PDs must be ready in any case.
A day in the life of a PD
Annals: How does a day in the life of a PD look like?
Jeong: A PD under production works on two things: planning and production. The spheres of planning have no boundaries, because one can come in contact with information in a number of ways. Watching films, Googling things, having conversations—like this interview—are all platforms for us to think of new topics, exchange ideas and expand on information. I see all these as different forms of planning.
After absorbing the necessary information, we ask the big Qs. What do I want to deliver? Disclose? Inform? Questions like these constitute the central theme of what PDs produce. The answers to such questions then become the design of the master plan. It is thus important that PDs stay curious—the “why?”s must circulate continuously for contents to advance.
The best part about being a PD is that we are allowed to paint anything on the blank canvas. The infinity of the medium exhibits countless possibilities. A PD is in contact with everyone within the frame of society, from laborers to this country’s president, all for the sake of the production. An agenda is then developed, like a storyboard during pre-production, and a show or a film is produced at last. Such process brings great pleasure because the resulting work mirrors all the efforts you have invested. The work becomes yours.
It is incredibly important that your creation is original. There is a quote I appreciate, which goes along the lines of “a repetition of copies after copies results in nothing but madness.” A PD must focus on creating new paths, adventuring novel journeys and upholding the risk of failure, all for the purpose of planting seeds of change in this society.
Annals: Being a PD is known to be a challenging career because of its heavy workload, hence the tag “extreme job*.” Do you agree with this label? What is the most challenging aspect of your profession?
Jeong: Yes, absolutely. Being a PD is definitely an “extreme job.” Many regard this career as a job of luxury, but unfortunately I do not find this frame to be true. People say that the three challenging Ds are: difficult, dirty, and dangerous. But my colleagues and I sometimes joke that there is a fourth D: a PD. Being a PD requires courage and propulsion, as a production is not a one-man project. PDs work along other staff members, and as a chief, he or she must bear the responsibility of managing and representing everyone.
Being a PD is arduous as well, not only mentally but also physically. When I worked on Myanmar, Ancient Mysteries Revealed, I slept an average of three to four hours a day for several months. Our schedules are packed, as my team and I are expected to film a large number of scenes within the given time frame. This becomes even a bigger challenge when the filming takes place in a foreign country where re-filming is not possible due to budget and time restraints. All production hence must be completed to perfection under the limited time crunch. The amount of stress PDs face on a daily basis is incredible; we need to juggle people, money and time, all at once.
As a documentary PD, budgetary responsibility is of even greater stress. Decisions in producing documentaries that budget over $800,000 are highly risky, as one wrong decision may turn tens of thousands of dollars into ash. Many times, we film out in the field, which is very vulnerable to sudden weather changes. Once, two hurricanes were expected to arrive on the days we filmed our documentary in China. As the executive, I had to decide on whether to abort the call-time**; I ended up cancelling, but the anticipated hurricanes did not arrive. I could not sleep for nights as millions of dollars were lost as a result of my decision. This was absolutely one of the most stressful moments in my life.
Annals: What helps you overcome these challenges? Are there words you live by that drive you to keep going?
Jeong: It is the sole responsibility of the PD to face and overcome these challenges. But I was fortunate enough to be able to share this burden with my team. Being a PD, I’ve learned that collaborative teamwork is vital. My staff members displayed a great example of team-play in every production, and I was able to move on because these people shared my concerns as if the troubles were theirs.
A co-worker once told me to “be a competent colleague”—and these were the words I lived by ever since. A competent colleague means, even if I hold the authority as the main executive, I am still a colleague standing on the same plane as others. A competent colleague does not sit and watch while giving commands. As a PD I collaborate with directors responsible for music, visuals, and other elements and try to see these components in their eyes as much as possible. PDs therefore require a versatile spectrum of professionalism.
PDs are like conductors of an orchestra. Although each musician is professional in their individual instruments, they must follow the conductor, right? In the case of PDs, they are the master presence in productions, and it is their duty to facilitate collaboration, while being a competent colleague.
For future PDs
Annals: What were the steps you had to take to become a PD? Is there an exam you must pass and certificates you must attain?
Jeong: Like everyone else, I also studied for the Press Exam***. All entrance exams are known to be challenging, and the Press Exam is no exception. It is even harder if you try to study on your own.
I would like to recommend group studies especially as the exams are of high difficulty. When I first started preparing, I got together with four other students from different universities. Not only did I want to study in a less competitive environment compared to an intra-school study group, but I also believed that the more diverse a group is, the more kinds of outlooks I would be able to adopt when faced with a question. And I was lucky—this assumption was proven to be true.
My study mates and I collected five different newspapers from five different outlets, all with a different political filter, ranging from conservative to liberal. We then assigned each person the same news from one of the five sources, and our task was to give a presentation on the contextual analysis of the article’s viewpoint. We were able to jot down some important elements that we could have missed when observing alone. This practice of crosschecking was one of the study strategies that worked best, because it allowed us to expand our way of thinking.
Another study strategy we tested as a group was carrying rehearsals for interviews, which comes in the latter steps of the Press Exam. We prepared by asking each other questions that we expected to appear; this system turned out to be highly helpful when I experienced my first, legitimate interview because I had already practiced answering similar questions with real people. It is not the same when you rehearse on your own in front of a mirror.
Speaking of interviews, the group study was effective in terms of exchanging feedback. Each broadcasting station, whether it is EBS or MBC, has its own stances, thus shows preference to answers that fit in their own frame. As we evaluated each other’s interview responses, we tried to check if the speaker delivered the right impression that they were meant to convey to each company.
But it is important to note that a lot has changed in the system since the years I prepared for the exam. In the past, the acceptance rate was about 1:100 to 1:200, and it is known that the competition is even higher today. Do not be discouraged though, because to become a PD, there are alternative ways too.
There are cases where people succeed in getting accepted during open recruitments. The main focus here is prior experience, and for those interested in this direction, I suggest starting from terrestrial broadcasting stations. I recommend taking internships and other opportunities that come by and learn the principles of media out in the field first. And with the experiences accumulated, you can become an independent PD. Like directors of indie films, you can develop your own work, without the influence of an agency. There are international organizations that invest in these independent PDs, so one is able to receive funds for the creation of their work. A very popular documentary film, My Lover, Don’t Cross that River was created by an independent PD, if you didn’t know. What I am trying to highlight here is that PDs are not all about working at national broadcasting stations from the very beginning. There are many other paths to become a PD.
Annals: Do you have to major in Communications to become a PD?
Jeong: It does not matter whether you majored in biochemistry or in theology. The degree is not of importance. From what I have seen in my 25 plus years at EBS, the majority of PDs stem from humanities majors, but I have seen plenty of engineering majors and others from technical sciences. TV shows and other media in motion are the products of collaborative work by people from different fields of study.
What is essential in becoming a PD is not your degree. It is, in fact, thirst. To accomplish a challenging goal like obtaining this career, one must be restless and ambitious. The thirst and hunger are what keep the person in position, like flags visible from a distance that indicate the finish line in marathons. When determining whether you are on the right track or not, you must ask yourself what kinds of work you are doing to achieve the goal.
Everything begins with curiosity. Begin by giving attention to societal issues, and extract questions. It is critical to expand our way of thinking through different sources of information and grow our interest in society. We all need that impetus of curiosity before anything, because it is what drives us to move forward.
Annals: Any last words to our Annals readers and Yonsei students who aspire to become PDs in the future?
Jeong: I noticed many college students are worried about filling up their resumes with a variety of extracurricular activities and internships. Any activity you participate in is good enough, as long as you enjoy what you commit to. The key here is not in the what but rather the how. It does not really matter what you do, but rather, with what kind of attitude you approach the matter and what kinds of thoughts you get to develop throughout. I have conducted multiple job interviews and what most of us interviewers seek
for is the applicant’s uniqueness and the depth of the response. So, my advice is: question and observe the world through various lenses—cultivate your quality of thought.
*Extreme job: Direct translation of 극한직업.
**Call-time: The official time all staff must gather under the commands of the PD.
***Press Exam: Direct translation of 언론사입사시험; A Korean term referring to the entrance exam for pursuing a media-related career.