The Supreme Court’s 14-1 decision last week set a precedent that owners of televisions are legally bound to pay subscription fees to NHK. The top court upheld the mandatory subscription fee system as constitutional — dismissing charges that it contravenes the freedom of contract — on the grounds that it serves the purpose of fulfilling people’s right to know, a key component of the healthy development of democracy. NHK should take the ruling as a reminder that it needs to make unceasing efforts to fulfill its role as a public broadcaster free from intervention by individuals and groups as well as the government.
The ruling should come as a boon to NHK, which has faced difficulty collecting subscription fees from some TV owners. As use of the internet becomes widespread, however, more and more people shun TV ownership because they feel they have access to sufficient information and entertainment online. NHK should realize that its ability to retain subscribers will depend largely on whether it can broadcast appealing, high-quality programs.
The top court ruled on a lawsuit filed by NHK against a man in Tokyo who refused to respond to the broadcaster’s written request in 2011 to sign a viewing contract. NHK takes the position that any household or business owning a TV must subscribe and pay viewing fees regardless of whether or not the owners watch NHK programs. Although the man has owned a TV set since 2006, he did not pay the fees — roughly ¥14,000 annually — claiming that NHK’s programs are biased.
At issue was Article 64, Section 1 of the Broadcast Law, which states that any person who has installed equipment capable of receiving NHK broadcasts must conclude a subscription contract with the public broadcaster. But the law does not make it clear that payment of the subscription fee is a legal obligation. It also doesn’t provide for a penalty for nonpayment. During the court proceedings, the man argued that the law’s provision calling for a subscription contract is legally nonbinding and that forcing him to pay the fees violates the freedom of contract and therefore is unconstitutional. The top court determined that the system is constitutional, saying that the subscription fee system is designed to equitably spread among people the financial burden of maintaining the public broadcaster and protecting it against the influence and control of particular individuals/groups and the government in its financing.
It also ruled that a subscription contract with NHK takes effect only when a TV owner agrees to it, while the fees will be collectable retroactively to the time when the viewer’s TV was installed. From now on, if a TV viewer refuses to accept the contract, NHK can file a lawsuit. If it does so and wins the suit, at that point the contract enters into force.
The ruling will be helpful as NHK tries to collect fees from TV viewers who refuse to sign the viewing contract. As of March 2016, 46.21 million households owned TVs. Of them, more than 9 million households had no subscription contracts with NHK. Fee collectors hired by NHK will visit each such household to persuade them to accept contracts. If they refuse, NHK will take them to court.
Still, the ruling could cut both ways. The more NHK tries to tighten the screws on TV viewers to sign subscription contracts and pay viewing fees, the more people may be alienated and desert TV broadcasts for the internet. According to a 2015 survey by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, 66 percent of respondents aged between 16 and 19 and 54 percent of those in their 20s said they found online sites more interesting than TV programs. The poll also found that 16 percent of those in their 20s either did not watch TV at all or hardly watched TV programs on weekdays, a twofold increase from a survey five years earlier.
As NHK makes preparations for simultaneous distribution of its programs via both traditional broadcasting and the internet starting in fiscal 2019, an advisory panel to the broadcaster in July called it reasonable for NHK to collect viewing fees from households that do not have TV sets but watch its programs on the web. In September, the same panel proposed that NHK look into a scheme to get information from power and gas companies on houses whose residents it has not been able to get to sign subscription contracts to see whether people actually live in those houses.
As the top court ruling says, NHK should realize that it’s desirable for it to gain the understanding of TV owners and win their support when asking them to sign subscription contracts.
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