KBS overcharged consumers for TV license fees according to BAI report

KBS headquarters in Yeouido, western Seoul [JOONGANG PHOTO]

Korea’s national television channel overcharged consumers who didn’t pay fees for watching TV, the government said in a report Tuesday evening.

The Korean Broadcasting System, better known as KBS, was found to have collected television license fees beyond the amount spelled out by the law and was ordered by the Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea (BAI) to pay consumers back.

KBS said that the BAI’s interpretation of the current laws is unfair and will appeal to the board for a reassessment of the decision.

KBS unfairly collected television license fees from viewers, according to the BAI inspection, and imposed and collected subscription fees for up to five years on viewers who had unregistered televisions, which is not permitted under the Broadcasting Act, according to the BAI.

The BAI conducted an audit inspection in November last year in response to a tip-off on the unfair collection of fees.

Under the Broadcasting Act of Korea, KBS, the national broadcaster, can collect television license fees from Korean citizens who own televisions connected to a network in their homes.

Through the BAI inspection, it was found that KBS collected 2.78 billion won ($2.08 million) in subscription fees from unregistered television owners from 2011 to September last year, an amount that exceeded the statutory fee set under the Broadcasting Act by 763 million won.

The Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea (BAI) headquarters in Jongno District, central Seoul, on Jan. 6, 2023. [NEWS1]

In response, KBS issued an explanatory statement and refuted that issues of fairness could arise if refunds are to be made according to the BAI inspection standards.

“The BAI has cautioned KBS and ordered a refund plan based on the standards of registration of a television, not the actual possession of a television and that license fees cannot be collected in excess of an additional charge,” read the statement from KBS.

“According to the Broadcasting Act, a television owner is obliged to pay license fees from the point of time of possession, not registration, and KBS has collected license fees based on this. If the BAI inspection results are followed, fairness issues in operating the license fee system may arise, and those who own a television set but have not registered the device may gain financial benefits as long as registration is delayed.”

KBS said that the company intends to carry out follow-up measures so that the “interpretation of broadcasting laws can be made in a way that allows for reasonable and fair levying and collection of license fees” and formally requested a reconsideration of the BAI’s inspection.

The issue of television license fees and KBS’s battle with the government and the public for higher fees has been longstanding. Public sentiment against KBS has been growing, according to local reports, and only 42.6 percent of KBS viewers responded in a survey last year that KBS was fulfilling its role as a national broadcaster.

The government started collecting television license fees in 1963, two years after KBS was founded in 1961. Starting at 100 won ($0.09) per month, the price was raised to 150 won in 1964, 200 won in 1965 and eventually reached the 2,500 won which is the current fee in 1981. The price has not been raised in 40 years and KBS called for a hike to the fee last year.

KBS announced a proposal to raise television license fees from 2,500 won to 3,800 won in January last year through its board of directors, claiming that a hike in fees is necessary to ensure the quality of broadcasting and that a hike is “inevitable.” President Yang Seung-dong of KBS announced a goal of “television license fee realization” during his New Year’s address.

Comparing KBS’s television license fee to fees collected by national broadcasters of other countries, it is very, very low. As of 2023, Britain’s BBC collects 159 pounds ($193) annually, which is 7 times higher than the Korean annual fee of 30,000 won, while Germany’s ZDF collects 9 times the amount with 220 euros ($236) and France’s FT collected 5 times the amount with 138 euros. There are 50 countries around the world that collect license fees, according to KBS.