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NHK’s public service is to take your money and run . . . bad TV

by Philip Brasor

Fans of baseball star Ichiro Suzuki had reason to be mad at NHK two weeks ago. The Seattle Mariners outfielder was on the verge of his 2,500th career hit, one of the game’s rare milestones, which was predicted to happen some time between June 6 and 9. However, the public broadcaster, whose BS-1 satellite channel airs Major League baseball, had scheduled no Mariners games on those days, opting instead to broadcast the entire New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox series.

When these games were scheduled months ago it probably made sense: Yankee slugger Hideki Matsui is more popular among Japanese viewers. However, Matsui broke his wrist last month.

Coincidentally, on June 6, an advisory panel to Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Heizo Takenaka recommended NHK lose two of its three satellite channels, a move that would allow NHK to save money and cut subscription fees. The panel basically said these channels were redundant.

NHK publicly begged to differ, going so far as to air its objection on its 7 p.m. news report. NHK’s position is that all three satellite channels serve the public interest, but to anyone who watches them regularly it’s easy to get the impression that NHK is lazy about content and not particularly shrewd business-wise. It seems likely that NHK locked itself into an entire season of Yankee broadcasts based simply on the notion that Japanese viewers want to watch Hideki Matsui. Didn’t anyone at NHK imagine a scenario where Godzilla might get injured?

No biggie you might say, but if NHK were a commercial network it would be a very big biggie. Advertisers who would pay good money for games with Matsui would also probably have a release clause in their contracts in the event he doesn’t play. In any case, a commercial broadcaster would never run the risk of pledging to broadcast a whole season of games based on the popularity of one player.

At the end of last year, when the government was leaning toward privatization of NHK as a way of solving its fiscal woes in the wake of nonpayment of subscription fees, NHK resisted by claiming that its hallowed “public-mindedness (kokyosei)” would be compromised if it had to compete commercially. Private broadcasters objected as well since they didn’t need any more rivals.

And according to an anonymous “ex-minister” quoted in the Asahi Shimbun, forces within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party decided they didn’t want NHK privatized either, implying that NHK is the only broadcaster in Japan that the government has some control over. If NHK became private, it would effectively join “the enemy.”

Though this sounds scandalous it shouldn’t be surprising. NHK’s budget has always been subject to approval by the government, and many believe that the LDP uses this process to keep the public broadcaster on a short leash. In early 2005, when it was alleged that LDP politicians pressured NHK to water down a documentary about a mock trial that convicted Emperor Showa of war crimes, the Diet was about to discuss NHK’s budget.

Privatization has since been dropped as an option upon the recommendation of the prime minister. The panel now supports an obligatory system that would compel everyone with a TV set to pay their fees upon threat of penalty. Though the panel doesn’t spell it out, such a system would have to be administered by the government, since it would involve the police and the courts, thus making NHK directly beholden to the authorities.

According to Shukan Asahi, NHK isn’t really unhappy with this particular recommendation, since it would allow it to continue to operate in the same manner as it does now. What’s missing from this discussion is the supposed beneficiaries of public broadcasting — the public. Japanese citizens are being treated as nothing more than a source of revenue. They certainly aren’t being consulted as to what they want or need from NHK.

In a recent Asahi editorial, writer Shinobu Yoshioka said that 30 percent of households don’t pay their subscription fees. It’s assumed that some of these people are protesting the recent money scandals, while others have never paid because they just don’t want to pay. By turning the fee into a tax, the government not only makes you pay for something you may not use, but it takes away the only means of protest for the people who do watch. As Yoshioka points out, not paying is a “democratic option.” Right now, it’s the only means of feedback that viewers have since ratings, in theory, don’t count on public television.

If NHK really were public, it would be overseen by public representatives rather than the government, whose main ambition for the broadcaster right now is to extend NHK’s reach overseas in order to promote Japan’s interests to the world. That, of course, is the definition of a government organ. One NHK employee told Asahi that if the government starts influencing NHK’s overseas content, what’s to stop it from influencing NHK’S domestic content, as if it wasn’t doing that already.

At any rate, NHK is not ready for the world. It makes and imports excellent documentaries, and some of its community programming serves viewers in valuable ways. But the news, which NHK prides on being “neutral” (read: dull and safe), is strictly amateur hour compared to the BBC or CNN. And much of the newer entertainment programming is nothing more than a timid copy of the junk on commercial TV.

NHK’s problems are not a matter of people not paying. They’re a matter of too many channels and not enough imagination to fill them up with worthwhile content. This situation isn’t limited to NHK — every commercial network’s BS channel is a white elephant — but it’s the public who pays for NHK’s waste. That’s why there are so many Yankee games on BS-1. Baseball is easy. Public-mindedness is hard.