National / Media | MEDIA MIX

NHK's restructuring plan sparks concern over influence

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

In a recent post for the progressive website Common Dreams, consumer advocate and one-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader bemoaned public broadcasting in the United States. Created by the government “to provide serious programming without any advertisements,” the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio were designed as alternatives to commercial TV and radio, which, because of economic prerogatives, tended toward entertainment. Public broadcasting was meant to provide information that is edifying and useful.

Over the years, however, public broadcasters have been subjected to what Nader calls “continual right-wing antagonism” that has led to leaner government funding, thus forcing stations to depend on “support” from large corporations. Content is carefully curated so as not to upset these corporations, and programming has skewed toward the same mix of music and entertainment you find on commercial stations.

In Japan, progressives have criticized public broadcaster NHK in a similar way. Because the government approves NHK’s budget, there’s a suspicion that management tends to avoid content that might offend the authorities. Since the advent of the second administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2012, these suspicions have become more acute. Allies of Abe were appointed to executive positions. In 2014, NHK Chairman Katsuto Momii said that if the government says go right, then NHK cannot go left.

These suspicions were retriggered last month when NHK announced structural changes that will lead to the cancellation or curtailment of certain programs, including the award-winning “ETV Special,” a documentary series on NHK’s educational channel that offers in-depth coverage of social issues, and “Heart Net TV,” a discussion and information show that is often about minority concerns.

The weekly magazine Shukan Post added fuel to the fire with a self-described scoop that focused on a protest letter from 72 employees of NHK’s Culture and Welfare Program Section, which is being dissolved. According to Shukan Post, the signatories were “not convinced” by the explanation they received from management about the reasons for the restructuring and were concerned that NHK programming would lose its diversity.

Production for all of NHK’s TV stations is overseen by either the News Bureau, which handles news-related programming, or the Production Bureau, which handles dramas, variety shows and information programs. The restructuring affects the Production Bureau, which currently consists of eight sections. These sections will be reorganized into six sections for the purpose of improved efficiency. The present system is vertically-oriented, meaning a top-down type of management. After the change, which goes into effect in June, management will be horizontal, meaning section chiefs can move staff among themselves with relative ease.

NHK says the reorganization will not affect content. However, the Culture and Welfare Section will be absorbed by other sections and will thus cease to exist. It is this section that produces “ETV Special” and “Heart Net TV,” which, as one staff member told Shukan Post, cover topics that are sometimes seen to be in opposition to government policy.

Shukan Post suggests that one purpose of the restructuring is to cut programming that may irk the administration, and points to decisions made by NHK that some see as indicative of the broadcaster’s desire to curry favor with those in power.

Akiko Iwata, a reporter who covers the prime minister’s office at NHK and who is said to be close to Abe, was given NHK’s chairman award in 2017. Hiroko Kuniya, the longtime host of NHK’s nightly in-depth news show, “Close-up Gendai,” who, unlike many NHK on-air talent, asks penetrating questions, was compelled to leave three years ago.

Shukan Post notes, however, that the shows produced by the Culture and Welfare Section typically do not earn high ratings, which means in-house support for the protest is mixed. The point of the letter, according to another employee, is “the meaning of public broadcasting.” As Nader might say, it’s not the mission of a public broadcaster to aim for higher viewer share, but rather to provide the public with information they can’t get elsewhere.

In its Feb. 23 Media Times column, the Asahi Shimbun examined NHK’s restructuring plan, concluding that the main impetus is the 2013 suicide of an NHK reporter from overwork. NHK determined that the woman’s heavy schedule was caused by a workload imbalance. A horizontal structure would distribute the burden more evenly among employees.

Some staff expressed to the Asahi Shimbun their annoyance with media such as Shukan Post and another weekly, Shukan Kinyobi, which claim that restructuring is being carried out to please the government. Former NHK producer Kozo Nagata, who is often critical of his old employer, told the newspaper that while NHK’s political coverage doesn’t always maintain proper distance from those in power, in this instance he thinks reorganization is appropriate.

Nagata elaborated on this view during a discussion on the web channel Democracy Times, saying that the NHK establishment has always gravitated toward the government position, while certain sections and programs have not, and he doesn’t see that changing. At the same time, he thinks the broadcaster’s flagship show, “NHK Special,” has become less relevant, recycling the same safe topics.

Yoshiyuki Niwa, an associate professor at Tokyo University, told the Asahi Shimbun that NHK is increasingly focused on ratings, an inclination that is just as compromising to journalistic integrity as bowing to power is.

What no media outlet mentions is how similar NHK programming has become to that of commercial broadcasters. The Saturday night lineup on NHK-G, a parade of drama and variety shows, is almost indistinguishable from the fare on other stations. Just because NHK hasn’t sold its soul to the government doesn’t mean it hasn’t sold its soul.