TV & Radio
Future of NHK remains unclear
Critics say 'reform' serves government's own interests
By AKEMI NAKAMURA
The Japan Times: Thursday, May 18, 2006
The government and lawmakers are saying the time is ripe to reform NHK, but according to some experts the authorities haven't come up with a vision for the public broadcaster's future or gotten any feedback from viewers.
"Government panels and lawmakers are discussing the details, but we cannot see the big picture (for the future) from their proposals," said Takaaki Hattori, a media law professor at Tokyo's Rikkyo University. "They appear to be wielding their power to change NHK to suit their own interests."
On Wednesday, a Liberal Democratic Party committee on telecommunications and broadcasting approved several reform proposals for NHK, including reducing the number of its channels, setting up an international channel for overseas viewers and making payment of NHK fees mandatory.
The day before, an advisory panel to communications minister Heizo Takenaka proposed similar reform ideas.
For instance, it said NHK fees can be reduced by taking away its satellite or radio channels, streamlining its organization, including subsidiaries, and reducing the costs of collecting user fees.
On TV, NHK has two terrestrial and three satellite channels. On radio, it has three channels. Viewer fees make up 96 percent of its revenue, but there is no penalty for not paying.
There is no question the public broadcaster is at a crossroads. It has been estimated that about 30 percent of households refuse to pay their NHK fees, with the number rising since NHK employees became embroiled in scandals starting in July 2004.
In addition, young people are not tuning in to any of the NHK channels, according to Hattori.
So this is probably the right time to discuss reform, but many experts say some of the ideas proposed by the advisory panel and the LDP committee miss the point.
Makoto Odagiri, editor in chief of GALAC, a monthly magazine on Japan's TV and radio culture, said reducing the number of NHK channels would harm the interests of some viewers.
"NHK has provided programs on various areas that commercial broadcasters have not covered, including language lessons and hobbies," he said. "Those programs meet the needs of a wide range of viewers, including elderly and disabled people."
Fewer NHK channels would lead to fewer such programs, which would mean a serious reduction of diversity in broadcasting, he added.
On user fees, Satoshi Daigo, a professor at the University of Tokyo who has been leading a campaign to get viewers to withhold payment, said the government panel and lawmakers should come up with concrete measures on how NHK can secure sufficient financial resources before just telling the broadcaster to lower the fees.
"I think the viewer fee system is the best way to run a public broadcaster," he said. "What NHK needs to do is to regain the trust (of the public) and make more people want to pay the fees."
Daigo and 25 other people launched the campaign in February 2005 after NHK was accused bowing to pressure from two key lawmakers to censor a TV program about a mock tribunal holding the late Emperor Hirohito responsible for wartime sex slavery. About 290 people signed up for the campaign and have refused to pay their fees.
If NHK shows it is independent of politics, the group will resume paying, Daigo said.
Odagiri of GALAC also said the government and lawmakers should first review fundamental issues, including the current system under which lawmakers approve NHK's budget and business plans, before addressing the smaller problems.