Photo: MBC's telecast of the Opening Ceremony, introducing Ukraine with a photo of Chernobyl. Credit: MBC.
It was racism seen around the world: MBC 문화방송, one of South Korea’s four network TV stations, made global news by putting up clearly offensive graphics to introduce some of the countries during the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony. For Ukraine, the telecast showed the ruins of Chernobyl; for Haiti, a scene of a riot following the assassination of its president Jovenel Moise; for Italy, Mexico and Japan, a pizza, tacos and sushi. (Discerning Italian and Mexican viewers also criticized that the pizza and the tacos shown by MBC were American-styled ones.)
How could this happen at a major TV station, for an event of this magnitude? Corporate bean-counting, coupled with toxic sports fandom culture, led to this debacle. Although MBC is a storied franchise in South Korea’s entertainment, today it is a shell of its former self as it shed most of its own production crew in order to save money. MBC has long since ceased to produce its own TV dramas, and delegated all sports-related production to its subsidiary, MBC Sports+. Having dropped its veteran sports production crew, MBC relied on the crew from Sports+, a cable TV station primarily covering pro baseball and soccer, to produce the show for the Olympics.
It was like giving the inmates keys to the asylum. South Korea’s online sports fandom culture - particularly among baseball fans - is notorious for its toxicity. The online bulletin boards for baseball fans, such as MLB Park 엠팍 or the Baseball Gallery of DC Inside 디씨야갤, were the spiritual ancestors of Ilbe 일베, the notorious spawning pool of South Korea’s alt-right. Catering to these fans, Sports+ telecasts of baseball games were routinely filled with “edgy” memes with little to no oversight.
With most of the in-house sports production team gone, MBC lacked the means to screen the proposed contents for the Opening Ceremony. The statement of apology offered by MBC’s CEO Park Seong-je 박성제 recognized that the incident was not a one-off, intern-going-rogue kind, but a sign of a deeper rot: “We found issues with the fundamental understanding of standards and the system of reviewing contents.”