Editorials

NHK fees in the internet age

As NHK makes preparations for simultaneous distribution of its programs via traditional broadcasting means and the internet, an advisory body to the public broadcaster has come out in favor of collecting viewing fees from people who watch programs on their mobile devices and personal computers. That would mean people who do not own a television would have to pay the fees if they want to watch NHK programs online. This should be thoroughly discussed from various angles so that the plan will be launched with full public understanding.

The Broadcast Law, which stipulates what NHK can do, currently bars it from simultaneous distribution of programs through broadcast and the web. It can collect viewing fees only from households that own a TV set. Last December, NHK informed a panel at the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry about a plan to broadcast and stream general and educational programs at the same time beginning in 2019, while introducing a scheme to collect viewing fees from households that watch NHK programs solely on the web. The Broadcast Law would have to be revised to authorize the plan.

NHK has been seeking to expand its service to the internet in view of the rising number of households — particularly among youths living alone — that do not have a TV due to the greater use of mobile devices such as smartphones. A 2007 revision of the Broadcast Law enabled NHK to launch a service called NHK On Demand — fee-charging, web-based redistribution of programs that have already been aired on television.

In February, an advisory body to NHK President Ryoichi Ueda started discussions on what form NHK’s fee-charging system should take if simultaneous broadcasting and streaming of its programs becomes possible. A report submitted by the panel last month called it reasonable to collect viewing fees from households that watch NHK programs only via the internet, based on the idea that the function of a public broadcaster — to disseminate accurate information to the public — should not be limited to broadcasting but expanded to the internet because of changes in the media and social environment.

The panel proposed that NHK collect viewing fees from web-only viewers only after they have downloaded the necessary application or signed up for official access to watch NHK programs on their mobile device or PC. It said NHK should not impose an additional fee for web-based distribution on TV set-owning households that already pay the viewing fees.

That formula may make sense. But there are other issues that need to be considered about NHK’s advance into the web sphere, including whether the entry of the public broadcaster, with its massive resources and the guarantee of steady income through viewing fees, will ensure fair competition, such as with private broadcasters.

In a poll conducted by NHK, a majority of the respondents were not interested in the planned service of simultaneous broadcasting and web feeds. For three weeks in fiscal 2016, NHK distributed its programs through both broadcasting and the internet on a trial basis, but the broadcaster has reportedly found that only 6 percent of some 5,000 participants in the trial watched programs via the internet even once. NHK’s planned web-based service is expected to cost several billion yen a year. It must be studied whether such a huge investment will pay off from the perspectives of its viewers.

Currently, NHK charges viewing fees on households that own a TV — whether they watch its programs on that set or not. But if NHK is to collect viewing fees for its simultaneous web feed only from people who have taken the procedures to watch its programs, by downloading an app and obtaining authorized access, the logic may follow that the broadcaster should collect fees only from TV owners who want to watch its programming. These days, TV sets can be connected to the internet, and people may not necessarily watch broadcast programs on them. These and other questions should be answered before amending the Broadcast Law to make the simultaneous broadcast and web feed of NHK programs possible.

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