Planning pays off as NHK takes its quake news global

by Edan Corkill

“The Shibuya, Tokyo, studio is now shaking extremely strongly. The Shibuya, Tokyo, studio is shaking strongly.”

So said announcer Kenzo Ito after turning to face a studio camera that had just gone live on NHK. It was 2:48 p.m. on the afternoon of March 11. What would soon become Japan’s strongest recorded earthquake was only just getting started, but Japan’s sole public broadcaster was already in full natural disaster mode — a mode that is, in a sense, its raison d’etre.

In the 86 years since it was established, NHK, or the Japan Broadcasting Corporation as it is also known in English, has covered hundreds of natural disasters in Japan. It now has an extraordinary network in place to cover crises should they happen at any corner of the archipelago. NHK has eight broadcasting centers including the main one in Shibuya, an additional 46 local stations, 14 helicopters on permanent standby all over the country, and 460 remote-controlled cameras at ports and other key locations from which it can beam live footage at any moment. There is also a hotline to the Meteorological Agency and automated access to the Agency’s earthquake early warning system. A warning from that system had been flashed on NHK viewers’ screens about 90 seconds before the cut from regular programming (coverage of Diet deliberations) to announcer Ito in the still-shaking Shibuya studio. And the reason that cut could be made so swiftly — minutes before any competing channel — is because NHK holds emergency broadcast drills every night at midnight.

“It is in the NHK charter to provide coverage of natural disasters,” explained Makoto Harada, the head of NHK’s International Planning and Broadcasting Department, at the Shibuya Broadcasting Center on Thursday. He added that fees the broadcaster is mandated by the government to collect from viewers help make that coverage possible.

More recently, those same fees — along with additional grants from the government — have also made it possible for NHK to broadcast internationally, and this latest series of catastrophes has well and truly thrust its flagship international service, NHK World, which Harada heads, into the spotlight.

Since the crisis started, NHK World has switched to full news broadcasting. Usually just the first 30 minutes of each hour is devoted to news. The majority of that additional coverage consists of footage from the main domestic Japanese-language channel — to which a team of simultaneous interpreters based in Shibuya are now constantly adding an English soundtrack.

As soon as NHK’s domestic channels started beaming in live footage from its robot cameras at ports in Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures — about 30 minutes before the tsunami struck — NHK World was able to take those feeds as well. Likewise, when a helicopter-borne NHK crew that had been scrambled from Sendai airport started beaming live images of the tsunami as it rolled across massive swaths of urban and rural farmland in Miyagi, those same images went straight out to the globe.

NHK World has also given foreign news outlets unprecedented access to its video feed. Two recipients have been leading global news providers AP and Reuters, and they in turn have made it available to their subscribers around the world.

“News offices located anywhere could look at NHK World footage and take it up immediately,” Harada said.

Of course, NHK World is still broadcasting news in English from its own studio (at Shibuya), and it also has one of its own English-language crews operating up in the northeastern areas most affected by the earthquake and its aftermath. Those crew members are just a fraction of the total 450 news staffers who have been sent north by NHK over the last week.

NHK World has a potential global audience of some 125 million households — through local satellite and cable service providers. “We have also bolstered our online broadcasts since the quake,” explained Harada. “We always had a live feed from the channel on our own website, but we are now also broadcasting on the live-streaming services Ustream and Nico Nico Douga.”

Because online broadcasts can be viewed domestically, some of NHK World’s regular programming usually has to be blacked out in online broadcasts, due to rights issues. But now that the broadcaster is essentially just airing news, to which it owns all the rights, it is able to deliver uninterrupted coverage on those online services.

Now, of course, NHK is not the only international broadcaster operating in the disaster areas of northeastern Japan and the stricken nuclear reactors in Fukushima Prefecture. The BBC and CNN are just some of the dozens of broadcasters working on the ground.

Harada volunteered that the approaches of such broadcasters would naturally be different to NHK’s. “I used to work as a reporter, and I covered the tsunami in Bali and the earthquake in Sichuan Province, China,” he said. “When you are operating with just one or two crews and you are overseas, then of course you have to go to the most drastically affected areas. Those are the images that you send back.”

NHK has so many crews on the ground, he continued, that it is possible to provide coverage not just from the most affected areas (and now the Fukushima reactors), but also from the recovery efforts taking place over a massive area. “The idea is to try to provide a balanced coverage of everything that is going on,” he said.

He also explained that several unwritten rules govern not just NHK’s coverage but also that of other broadcasters in Japan. “We won’t use closeup images of deceased persons,” he said. “That’s out of respect, out of respect for privacy.”

When asked whether NHK World’s receipt of monetary support from the national government would compromise its coverage of the events surrounding the Fukushima reactors, he said that it wouldn’t. “If we were to refrain from covering something, then the other domestic broadcasters would just cover it, and it would be obvious what we had done.” An NHK spokesperson also pointed out that the government support only accounts for a fraction of the overall NHK World budget.

And do NHK’s impressive disaster preparations extend to contingencies should its key operations in Tokyo become impossible?

Harada smiled wanly at that suggestion. “We have a plan that would allow all main broadcasting functions to switch to Osaka,” he said.