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[HERALD INTERVIEW] 'TV shows need time out'

2008/10/16 Source

Kim Tae-ho-I, 32, is now so famous he is recognized on the street. He is so busy that he hardly has time to sleep, let alone date.

He is one of the most famous directors in the field of Korea's television entertainment, with MBC's highly popular and even legendary reality program "Infinite Challenge" under his belt.

But Kim seems more concerned, rather than charged and satisfied.

"I need a break. I've been saying it for a long time. But what I mean by a break is that the program needs a break. I know I would want to come back to work just after a week of rest", Kim said in an interview with The Korea Herald at the MBC center in Yeouido.

Pointing to Korea's ineffective production systems, Kim talked about his work, ethics and vision.

After running for over three straight years, every week, Infinite Challenge has had its share of ups and downs. It enjoyed lofty viewer ratings for an entertainment show -- over 30 percent -- and of course, much lower ones. It was criticized for backpedaling at times, but mostly praised for pioneering a new form of entertainment show where most were stuck in a rut of comedians picking at each other's looks. Along with the success of Infinite Challenge, where six comedians with larger-than-life personalities are put in different situations and given challenges each week, Kim has earned his fame as well.

"Infinite Challenge is definitely the most meaningful program that I have directed", Kim said.

The show was radically different than its peers, with the closest attention paid to detail -- shown with witty subtitles and nimble-fingered editing. The show is said to have introduced for the very first time where the characters are fixed, and the theme changes from a talk show to a game show and even a soap opera, each week.

Infinite Challenge, indeed, has become a harbinger of a new form of reality TV, showing celebrities in "real" situations and challenges.

There is the "Family on the Go" on SBS about a celebrity "family" going on field trips to suburban areas on a mission to help senior farmers. MBC's "Just Married" is about four or five pairs of celebrities who act as if they are married. KBS's "Two Days, One Night" is about six young men, all of them stars in their own fields, going on wild trips and playing survival games.

These semi-reality programs have hit the spot, with Korean viewers seeking refuge from the daily grind by watching "real" reactions from stars who were otherwise considered out of touch.

The difference between these shows and Infinite Challenge is that most of their themes, or formats, have been used on Kim's program as an episode.

Instead of setting a certain format as the other shows do, Kim says his show uses the main characters as the format, with the topic changing weekly, thereby leaving "infinite" possibilities, and also an "infinite challenge" for the creators.

A perfectionist by reputation, Kim is not hesitant to point to his accomplishments.

"The reputation and acknowledgement of entertainment show directors have gotten much higher compared to where it was when I entered MBC in 2001, in many parts thanks to the success of Infinite Challenge", he said.

A graduate of Korea University, Kim forwent his initial choice of an internship at a prominent daily newspaper and applied for a position of program director, widely referred to as PD in Korea, at MBC.

"I don't know why, but I had this ungrounded conviction that I will become a PD at MBC", Kim said.

"My naive reason was that I always enjoyed watching television. I simply thought I will get to do a lot of TV watching if I entered the broadcasting station. I couldn't have been more wrong", Kim said, laughing.

His first position was an assistant for an entertainment news program called "Section TV".

While building his career, Kim said he lacked close supervision fro mseniors and was left to learn the ropes himself.

"One of my goals is to let my subordinates make as much of their abilities as possible by urging them more creativity and letting them feel a sense of control and responsibility", he said.

After almost a decade in the Korean television business, Kim says he feels that he must now seek a bigger dream.

"I am on a payroll as an employee. But at this point in my life, it is more about enjoying the success rather than earning more money. The next ambition of mine, instead, is to do something more constructive", he said.

In Korea, each TV network hires production directors and other necessary staff to produce their flagship programs. Smaller production companies also sell their items and products to nationwide TV networks, but at a minor scale.

As a good role model, Kim pointed out to the Netherlands' Endemol production company, which created Big Brother, the original TV reality show.

Endemol, with subsidiaries and joint ventures in 23 countries, are also responsible for hit shows like "1 vs. 100", "Fear Factor", "Deal or No Deal", and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire".

"We have heard criticisms from such production companies that we waste so much energy in one show by having to change the format every week or two. For them it is about having one format and selling them to different buyers", Kim said.

The Korean market has not matured enough for such a system, and one format is only worth a mere 300,000 won or so, he explained.

"This is not just about my dream. I think MBC and other television channels must seek a way to make profits other than by relying on (advertisements and so forth) and instead try harder to sell program formats to foreign markets", he added.

His future-oriented and innovative thinking is well represented in his everyday life and style.

His cast members often joke on air that their director is more fashionable than themselves.

Kim also describes himself as a loner.

"I am not fit (to work) for an organization. My style is to do things by myself and I get defensive when I am told what to do", he said.

For this, he does not rely on factions and instead puts everything into trying to create high-quality end products, Kim said.

His inspirations for formats of Infinite Challenge come at the most aloof moments in daily lives.

"Once I was walking down the street and saw the poster of the movie 'The Good, the Bad, the Weird', and I immediately thought, wait a minute, we have our own good, bad and weird guys in our cast", he said.

Hence came the recent airing of "Run Away with the Money Bag", which garnered high viewer ratings. Each of the six cast members were assigned to carry a brief case to a destination. A winner would be the one who brought the brief case that carried real money.

"Without a system where we can have a break in between seasons, a single format can easily bore the viewers, especially after a year", he said.

As a reward for his hard work, Kim said that he is finally going on a month-long vacation in November, possibly to Europe.

"The task for our team is to continue stepping forward, ahead of others, and show them the way to go", Kim said, looking ever more confident.

By Lee Joo-hee

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