Spot On: Tuning in to what's on in South Korea, Japan

G4, SpikeTV, and MTV have their own array of game-centric programming, but what's available in Asia is over the top.

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If you think you've seen the best of what TV can do in the area of game coverage, you need to take a trip to Korea. Two cable TV networks, known as Ongamenet and MBCgame, compete for viewers with their own 24-hour programming dedicated to PC and console gaming. Fierce gaming competitions are held, backed by major corporate sponsors, and studios overflow with live audiences trying to catch a glimpse at players who are practically given celebrity status.

The programming is an odd mix of competition coverage, game news, and school-girl-cute window dressing. Curious to know what's on tonight in Seoul? GameSpot News takes you on a trip East, clicker in hand.

Tuning in to South Korea TV, we find Ongamenet, a 24-hour PC/console gaming cable channel. Their number one program is called Ongamenet Starleague, which is a three-month long Starcraft tournament broadcast live every Friday beginning at 7:00 p.m. Players in the final round compete for a top cash prize of $20,000. Second- and third-place winners can win up to $10,000 and $6,000, respectively.

Surprisingly, Ongamenet's second most popular program also revolves around the world of Starcraft--titled SKY Proleague, sponsored by SKY (phone service provider SK Telecom). Eleven Starcraft teams compete in a yearlong tournament through 11 rounds, and each final competition is broadcast live, with the ultimate winner pocketing a $50,000 cash prize. The final match of this year was held in an outdoor arena rather than an indoor studio facility, and local Busan police had to control more than 120,000 spectators.

Yes, South Koreans take their gaming competitions extremely seriously.

Other popular Ongamenet programs include Game Plus, a news program that covers game releases, game news and online game league updates. Here We Go is a daily broadcast where comedian host Woot-Chat-sa and 15-year-old cohost Lee Ji-Ln compete in live online games with home viewers. South Korean teen supermodel Kim Sae-Rom hosts Hello PS Market, where new Sony PS products are introduced to viewers in the program.

Ongamenet maintains more than four studio facilities to produce and broadcast its programming in conjunction with OnMedia, its parent company. When the indoor studios become filled to capacity, people gather outside to watch the gaming competitions unfold on big screens.

AGB Nielsen Media Research has reported that ratings for this kind of programming are on the rise in South Korea. According to The Korea Times, Ongamenet and competitor MBCGame have been ranked among the top 20 shows in monthly viewership among South Korea's 99 cable TV channels. The TV viewing audience consists mostly of teenagers and has rivaled that of even MBC and KBS1, South Korea's major terrestrial networks.

The Korea Times is also reporting that competition to win audiences among broadcasters will become fierce. It's important to keep in mind that corporate sponsorship is involved as well, allocating millions of dollars in prizes and ad revenue.

China is the next country that South Korea hopes to dominate with its game competition programming, but Jung Il-hoon, the operator of the World e-Sports Games (WEG), worries that North American TV networks may take interest in such programming and overtake South Korea "Some major US TV channels such as MTV already started to have computer game shows, though we still have more know-how in running such programs. If we don't try hard to develop the content of e-sports and fail to win the Chinese market, soon we will have to import e-sports broadcasting programs from the US, just like we pay a large amount of money to watch Major League baseball," Jung said in a recent interview with Korea Times reporter Cho Jin-seo.

Jung continued with a surprising projection saying that although broadcasters and audiences are satisfied now, American TV networks may soon begin to take an interest. Jung predicts America will "easily catch up to South Korea and will eventually swallow the industry."

Interestingly, in Japan, game TV programming is surprisingly thin.

This past year Gran Turismo 4 fans in Japan got a special behind-the-scenes look at the game courtesy of TV Tokyo business program Gaia no Yoake. This hour-long program followed the game's production staff in its development offices where tense final preparations were being made on the game before its release to Japanese store shelves. A bootleg recording of the program found its way to North America via an Internet download site, and English-speaking GT4 fans discussed the show's content on bulletin boards.

The only regular game program in Japan is Gamecenter CX on Fuji TV. There used to be a morning show named Game Ex and a midnight show named Game Wave (both on the TV Tokyo network), but both shows were discontinued.

GameSpot acquired a copy of Gamecenter CX to see what the program is all about, and while no English subtitles were provided, the one-hour show was still very entertaining.

Gamecenter CX stars comedian Shinya Arino and has more of a retro-gaming focus. Arino sits down to play popular retro video games in a small room in front of a camera crew. Arino interviews famous video game designers in between games and visits popular local game arcades. Designers that Arino has interviewed in previous episodes have included Yoshiki Okamoto (Resident Evil), Yu Suzuki (Virtua Fighter), and Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid series).

In the episode Gamespot viewed, Arino sits down to play Super Mario Brothers 3 on the Nintendo Famicom (NES).

Arino inserts the cartridge and begins to play in front of the LCD flat-panel display surrounded by snacks and drinks on the table. Cameras placed around the room record every movement. Suddenly the gameplay is stopped momentarily so that the crew can refer to the instruction manual to find out how Mario can pick up an object. The production crew can be heard off-camera laughing hysterically at every mistake Arino makes in the game. The host begins to feel stressed out and, playing it for laughs, places a cold compress on his head. A soundtrack of tense music begins playing.

A narrator provides a precise play-by-play voice-over, accompanied ultimately by a triumphant music cue.

Fuji TV has produced more than 25 one-hour episodes of Gamecenter CX so far for its partner network Fuji TV Ch721.

Why hasn't all this programming made its way to English-speaking shores? Couldn't they be acquired or licensed by networks outside of Asia?

Programming executives from G4, North America's dedicated game network owned by Comcast, and SpikeTV, a Viacom-owned network aimed at men, politely declined to take part in this story citing that they are developing their own original game programming.

"Video games are the core of G4's programming strategy," a G4 spokeswoman said in a statement. "They are the foundation and basis of our network. Any programming we add to our slate will be attractive to a gamer audience and serve the male 18-34 demographic".

There is a small glimmer of hope. Niki Yoo, PR and promotions producer of Ongamenet, states that the programming will make its way to America via specialized networks aimed at Korean-speaking audiences.

"Ongamenet made a contract with TVK24 and iSkyCom, both in the US, to provide Ongamenet programs. TVK24 currently broadcasts Ongamenet programs since last March, and iSkyCom is scheduled to broadcast from early 2006," Yoo says.

Meanwhile, Iron Chef thrives on the Food Network, Asian cinema (from Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan) finds its way into Best Buy's DVD section, and Japanese female pop-duo Puffy Ami Yumi still rock their way onto Turner's Cartoon Network with their own animated series. Could the time be right for game programming to jump the Pacific and land on US shores?

For now, video game TV from the Far East will finds it way through webcasts and illegal bootleg recordings. But as the popularity of gaming competitions continues, and the acceptance of Asian pop culture grows stronger, TV viewers and gamers around the globe may not have to wait too much longer for the arrival of Asia's video game TV revolution.

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