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Top court decision on NHK fees raises questions over broadcaster’s relevance in the internet age

Kyodo

The Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday legally requiring television owners to pay for a subscription to NHK is raising new questions about the role and relevance of the public broadcaster, at a time when young people are increasingly watching shows on the internet rather than on television sets.

In the first decision of its kind, the top court ruled in favor of NHK in a lawsuit against a Tokyo man who refused to respond to a request to sign a contract in September 2011.

The ruling said that contracts should be considered binding following the lawsuit by NHK and the verdict in this case ordering the TV owner to enter a contract.

While the ruling is a boon for NHK’s efforts to make every household and business with a TV pay, Hiroyoshi Sunakawa, a professor at Rikkyo University, said it “risks accelerating (the trend) of young people moving away from receiving broadcasts via TV sets and from NHK.” Sunakawa said more young people around him are using smartphones to watch videos.

A 2015 opinion poll by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute found that more than half of younger people — 66 percent of respondents aged between 16 and 19 and 54 percent of those in their 20s — said they found online video sites more interesting than TV offerings.

Sunakawa said that because “public broadcasting is a system built upon public trust,” NHK should consider viewers’ preferences.

“The time has come to seriously debate what constitutes public broadcasting that is befitting of the internet age,” he said.

The Broadcast Law, which was at issue in the suit, states that any person who has installed equipment capable of receiving NHK broadcasts must conclude a contract. The law, however, does not stipulate that the payment of the so-called broadcast reception fee is an “obligation,” and there is no penalty for not paying the roughly ¥14,000 ($124) annual fee.

NHK is primarily funded through the fees, which it says should be paid by all TV owners regardless of nationality and whether or not its programs are watched. But around 10 million households and businesses are believed to be sidestepping payment.

While Wednesday’s ruling officially backed NHK — which has been struggling with unpaid fees due mainly to people protesting scandals at the broadcaster in 2004 — it remains uncertain whether the payment obligation can be enforced.

The court ruled that the obligation to pay begins when a TV is installed. For the Tokyo man involved in the suit, that would mean 11 years of back payments.

Some working in sales and marketing at the broadcaster, however, had mixed feelings about the ruling. An NHK employee said that while the decision “makes it easier to explain” the obligation to viewers, the situation “would not change at all ” — with people who refuse to pay unlikely to change their stance.

What would have been a “big change” is if NHK had won its argument that contracts are concluded at the time of the broadcaster’s request, the employee said. NHK argues that contracts should be viewed as concluded when a written request is delivered to a residence or business, and that payment should start from that point. But the court said there must be consent from TV owners for a contract to be considered concluded.

The ruling did boost the possibility that contracts from now on will be concluded with TV owners’ consent, said Yoshihiro Oto, a Sophia University professor.

But proving the timing of TV ownership, and collecting payments in full, are likely to remain major challenges.