NHK, A TV Channel at the Service of the People? | INA Global

NHK, A TV Channel at the Service of the People?

Article  by  Mathieu GAULÈNE  •  Published 12.09.2011  •  Updated 16.09.2011
NHK is respected in Japan for its seriousness and cultural programming that never sacrifices quality in the name of ratings. At the forefront of broadcasting research since its debut, the company has also faced a number of political and financial scandals in recent years.

Summary

A public service modeled on the BBC

NHK (the abbreviation for Nippon Hôsô Kyôkai or Japan Broadcasting Corporation) is the largest Japanese broadcasting company. Its profits – nearly $8 billion USD in 2010[+] NoteNHK Public Relations Department, NHK Annual Report 2010/2011, April 2011, p. 18.X  [1]– make it the #1 television company in the world. The NHK Group is often confused with its main channel, the general interest NHK (Sôgô Terebijon) that mainly broadcasts news (the 7am newscast is the most watched by the Japanese) as well as cultural and educational programs. There is also a second network channel, NHK Educational (Kyôiku Terebijon), as well as two satellite channels, NHK BS1 and NHK BS Premium. In 2009 it also launched an international channel, NHK World TV. Finally, at the origins of the media group are two AM radio stations, Radio 1 and Radio 1, an FM radio station and an international station, NHK World–Radio Japan. The NHK logo is Domo-kum, a small brown creature hatching from an egg. He appears on TV in stop-motion animated videos along with an elderly rabbit named Usajii.
 
Before dedicating itself primarily to TV, NHK was first a radio station created in 1926 by the Tokyo, Okaka and Nagoya radio stations, and modeled after the BBC[+] NotePhilippe Berthet, Jean-Claude Redonnet, L’audiovisuel au Japon, Que sais-je, Paris, 1992, p. 7.X [2]. It was a private company, placed under the control of the state by virtue of Article 1 of the 1915 telegraph law[+] NoteBroadcasting Culture Research Institute, Broadcasting in Japan. The Twentieth Century Journey from Radio to Multimedia, NHK, Tokyo, 2002, p. 29.X [3]. With the increase in militarism, radio progressively became the organ of government propaganda: beginning in 1941, jazz was banned from the airwaves, and programs teaching English, French and Chinese were cancelled. The zealous Posts and Telecommunications minister (Sômushô) went as far as asking hosts to no longer use words that originated in English[+] NoteMasami Ito (dir.), Broadcasting in Japan. Case studies on Broadcasting systems, Routledge, London, 2011 (1st ed. 1978), p. 64-65; NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, op. cit., p. 5.X [4]
 
With the occupation and democratization of Japan, a new group, NHK, was created as part of the “Three Radio Laws” of 1950. Among these laws, the Broadcasting Law (Hôsôhô) set very strict specifications for NHK, but also for private stations permitted to broadcast. Today, we refer to the “Big Five,” the five main private Japanese channels that are NTV, TBS, Fiju Television, TWV Ashai and TV Tokyo, all connected to the main press groups[+] NoteIbid., p. 16 Cf. article InaGlobal on Yomiuri.X [5].
 
All of them must respect four principles:
  • No disturbing the peace and morality
  • Remain politically neutral
  • Broadcast news that hasn’t been distorted
  • During controversy, clarify the issues by approaching the question from different angles.
Furthermore, all the channels are required to respect a balance between cultural, entertainment and news programs. In practice, due to extreme competition for sponsors and commercials, the private channels have had a tendency to emphasize entertainment-oriented programming. These rules apply above all to NHK, which is prohibited by the Broadcasting Law from seeking profits (article 9-9) or broadcasting commercials[+] NoteIbid., p. 31-32.X [6]. Moreover, the law gives the broadcasting group specific missions. NHK’s main task is to promote democratization and educate the public with quality programming. It must also always be aware of viewers’ expectations and criticisms. For that, NHK has conducted a number of opinion surveys and has a large call center where viewers can express their grievances. But the channel goes further than that, regularly interacting with the public. In 2009, for example, NHK organized 2,000 “viewer meetings” around Japan, bringing together some 53,000 people[+] NoteNHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 5.X [7]. Thanks to this close relationship, mutual respect grew between NHK and its viewers before political and financial scandals led to a deterioration of the channel’s image.
 
NHK must improve and extend its broadcasting in Japan, something that is well underway today. As we will see later, it also must carry out scholarly research on broadcasting, with the goal of pushing Japan to the forefront in this domain. To do so, NHK has a scientific and technical research lab created in 1930. Finally, NHK must also be the showcase for Japan to the rest of the world, via NHK World TV and Radio Japan[+] NoteMasami Ito (dir.), op. cit., p. 55.X [8]. Although independent, NHK is closely supervised legally and tied to the state.
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Veritable financial independence

NHK is a state-run company of a peculiar type in that its revenue comes almost exclusively from fees paid by viewers. This rule was established by the Broadcasting Law, which states that every household that buys a television must sign a contract with NHK to pay these fees. This mandatory sum is paid directly to NHK, without intervention by the state. In 2010, the annual fee for network channels was 14,910 yen (about $184 USD) and for all channels of the group, 25,520 yen ($315 USD)[+] NoteNHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 18. Exchange rate of 12 May 2011 (1 dollar = 80 yen).X [9].
 
This law doesn’t provide for any penalty in the event of non-payment and some 30% of Japanese TV viewers don’t pay the fee[+] NotePhilippe Mesmer, “Au Japon, la NHK vit avec les recettes de la redevance“, Le Monde, 30 janvier 2008.X [10]. To encourage viewers to pay, the group regularly sends employees door-to-door to remind citizens that the TV fee is obligatory. The collecting of the fee is the second-largest budgetary expense of the channel (10% of the budget in 2010), behind the main one, the production and rebroadcasting of programs (71%)[+] NoteNHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 18.X [11]. NHK’s profits in 2010 were 678.6 billion yen, nearly $8.4 billion USD[+] NoteNHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p18; as a comparison, in the same period, France Television earned 3.1 billion euros, or $4.4 billion USD. Cf. Paule Gonzales, « Les bons comptes 2010 de France Télévisions », Le Figaro, 28 avril 2011.X [12]. The NHK fee accounts for 96.5% of its profits, complemented by DVD sales of programs and documentaries and various other forms of financing[+] NoteNHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 18.X [13]. The financial independence of NHK is thus a reality, while a certain number of observers have been overly quick in also assuming its independence from state power.
 

Source Broacasting in Japan, Editions NHK
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A problematic proximity to power

In reality, this financial independence does not preclude the public channel’s special proximity to state power. NHK management is composed of 12 members, all named by the prime minister with the consent of the two chambers of the Diet, Japan’s legislature. In turn, it elects NHK’s Director General[+] NoteMasami Ito (dir.), op. cit., p. 31.X [14]. Furthermore, the annual NHK budget is presented to the Ministry of Communications, then the Prime Minister’s office, and is subsequently discussed in the Diet and voted on by both chambers[+] NoteIbid., p. 52.X [15]. Even if the administration doesn’t directly intervene in the decisions concerning the programming schedule, it can influence senior management whose positions are veritable ejection seats, renewed every three years[+] NotePhilippe Berthet, Jean-Claude Redonnet, L’audiovisuel au Japon, Que sais-je, Paris, 1992, p. 58.X [16]. And this is all the more true in a country where the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was in power in a near-hegemonic fashion from 1955 to 2009.
 
Thus, in critical situations, the return of state control can be brutal, for better or for worse – the former, during natural catastrophes like the March 11, 2011 earthquake where the TV channel became a broadcaster of emergency alerts and various weather news due to its agreements and law-required obligations[+] NoteMasami Ito (dir.), op. cit., p. 35.X [17]. The Japanese Meteorological agency, for example, is required to provide real-time information to NHK during tsunami alerts. To quickly inform the population in the case of natural disaster, NHK has access to 14 helicopters and 460 cameras placed in urban areas all around Japanese territory[+] NoteNHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 04.X [18].
 
But sometimes this state control is less virtuous. In September 1946, NHK employees supported the labor strike at the Yomiuri newspaper and demanded salary raises. After negotiations with management failed, the strike began October 5. This led to a total blackout, complete radio silence for the main station in the country. The government’s reaction wasn’t surprising; after three days, the police seized the NHK building and guarded it day and night. The civil servants of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications composed and broadcast “news” six times per day. For 20 days, the radio station was the voice of the government. 
 
This mishap reveals the intimate ties uniting the media groups with the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications – which, since 2001, has become the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. The Ministry, in addition to strictly monitoring the NHK annual budget, issues broadcast authorizations to private media companies, which are renewed every five years. This doesn’t exactly encourage the “Big Five” and the major newspapers that have to depend on the renewal authorizations to be critical of the government.
 
Furthermore, the Communications Ministry isn’t spared the practice of Amakudari[+] NoteMeaning “descent from the sky.”X  [19]which is when high officials from the Ministry join the board of directors of a media company at the end of their career[+] NoteTakesato Watanabe, “Japan’s Media at Present”, March 1996.X [20].
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An image tarnished by corruption and restructuring

During the 2000s, NHK experienced several major crises, which sullied its image among viewers. In 2005 it was revealed that NHK had censored interviews with former “comfort women” in a documentary about World War II. These women, who number in the thousands, were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military. NHK bowed to pressure coming from revisionist politicians of the LDP, close to then-Prime Minister Junichirô Koizumi.
 
For Keiichi Katsura, a journalism professor at Tokyo’s Taishô University, that constitutes proof that “NHK is more beholden to politicians of the LDP than viewers”[+] NoteAnthony Faiola, Scandals Force Out Japanese TV Chief Washington Post, January 26, 2005.X [21]. In addition to that, another scandal involving embezzlement by management revealed to the public the underside of a channel that was believed to have integrity. In January 2005, the president of NHK, Katsuji Ebisawa, was forced to resign.
 
As a consequence of these scandals, a campaign to boycott the TV fee led to a drop in the group’s profits between 2005 and 2006. Using that as a pretext, and in keeping with the “shock doctrine” described by Naomi Klein, NHK implemented a vast restructuring plan with the goal of shedding 10% of its staff, some 1,200 jobs. After a peak of 16,500 employees in 1972, the Japanese broadcasting company has since been required to keep the number of employees below 15,000, then 12,000, despite its continuing expansion[+] NoteMasami Ito (dir.), op. cit., p. 59.X [22].
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A channel at the forefront of technological innovation

In this context of relative crisis, what does NHK’s future hold? On the technical side, NHK remains one of the great successes in the broadcasting universe, particularly in terms of technology. Since 1925 there has been a constant obsession at NHK to be a vanguard of radio and TV broadcast techniques. In a very interesting work from the NHL Broadcasting Culture Research Institute – created in 1946 to preserve the memory of the NHK and produce studies about broadcasting[+] NoteNHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, op. cit., p.84.X [23] – the group doesn’t miss an opportunity to note that NHK Radio began only four years and four months after the first radio station in the world.
 
In 1930, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications quickly pushed for the creation of a research lab that would focus its work on television. Its budget was three billion yen in 1937, which was 11.8 % of NHK’s annual budget. In 1939, it even conducted the first televised retransmission test, but the research was abandoned with the onset of the war in the Pacific in 1941[+] Noteibid., p59.X [24].
 
In the postwar era, NHK launched its first TV channel in 1951, followed by an educational channel in 1959. But the number of households with television sets was low, due to its high cost. As it had done with crystal sets, the Ministry of Industry and Commerce (Miti) promoted the national production of television sets to accompany and support NHK[+] NotePhilippe Berthet, Jean-Claude Redonnet, op. cit., p.24.X [25]. This ministerial planning, along with NHK research, made Japan the top exporter of TV sets in the 1970s, then of VCRs in the 1980s. Japanese viewership grew exponentially thanks to two events: the wedding of Prince Akihito – the present emperor --- in 1959, and the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 1964. While in 1954, there were barely 17,000 TV viewers, ten years later this number surpassed four million[+] NoteMasami Ito (dir.), op. cit., p. 19-21.X [26]. In the early 1960s, NHK was one of the first channels in the world to broadcast in color[+] NoteIbid.,p. 20.X [27]. Then NHK went on to initiate the launch of two satellite channels and work at the same time on high definition TV. Thus in 1992, the BS channels of NHK began to broadcast in Hi-Vision (the term used in Japan for HD), which was followed by the creation of a channel called BS-HD. The Japanese channel was a pioneer in the new high definition video format, which it had been working on since 1964.
 
Its research today is focused on an ultra-high-definition video format – UHDTV, called Super Hi-Vision in Japan – capable of displaying 33.18 million pixels, some 16 times more than present HD[+] NoteMaxim Labat, “NTT et la NHK effectuent un transfert d'une vidéo Super Hi-Vision sur un réseau partagé”. Bulletins électroniques Japon n°565, February 25, 2011.X [28]. The group expects to launch this format in 2025 for its 100th anniversary[+] Note“Le Japon au cœur de la télévision de demain”. La Croix, 4 juillet 2009.X [29]. The other technology being worked on in the NHK labs is 3D television. The research is aimed at creating 3D images visible without glasses that can be watched from any angle. The lab is also working on developing ultra-thin and bendable screens[+] NoteNHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 17.X [30].
 
NHK’s investment in its lab is unceasing. In 1977, NHK devoted just 3% of its budget to research with a team of 500 researchers in the lab[+] NoteMasami Ito (dir.), op. cit., p.73.X [31]. Today this lab functions with only 250 researchers but a budget of 18.2 billion yen, which is 2.6% of the total budget[+] NoteNHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 18.X [32].
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International underinvestment

NHK does have its Achilles heel; though endowed with an international channel, NHK World, launched in 2009, it remains stuck in the mindset under which it was created. The specifications set by the Broadcasting Law of 1950 specified that NHK was to be an international showcase for the country. But while this effort was cemented in France, for example, by the implementation of the 24-hour news channel France 24, NHK World is not a 24-hour news channel, instead broadcasting cultural programs that sell the image of “cool Japan” to the rest of the world. The result: when the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear catastrophe struck on March 11, 2011, the 24-hour broadcast of news by the channel revealed an improvisational quality and a sort of amateurism. The channel broadcast simultaneous translation of breaking news from the Japanese-language channel with visible difficulty. A real effort was made to inform, but it couldn’t hide what was gapingly obvious: an underinvestment by NHK in its international channel. It may very well be that CCTV News, the international Chinese channel producing newscasts at the same time, is more compelling than its Japanese competitor, at least in terms of form.
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Data

  • General Manager: Shigeo Fukuchi.
  • 2010 Budget: 6.78 billion yen (nearly $8.8 billion USD).
  • Employees: 11,000.
  • Founded: 1925.
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References

Philippe BERTHET, Jean-Claude REDONNET, L’audiovisuel au Japon, Que sais-je, Paris, 1992.
 
Masami ITO (dir.), Broadcasting in Japan. Case studies on Broadcasting systems, Routledge, Londres, 2011 (1st ed. 1978).
 
Ellis S. KRAUSS and Susan J. PHARR, Media and Politics in Japan, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1996.
 
Ellis S. KRAUSS, Broadcasting Politics in Japan. NHK and Television News, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 2000.
 
NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, Broadcasting in Japan. The Twentieth Century Journey from Radio to Multimedia, NHK, Tokyo, 2002.
 
Takesato WATANABE, “Japan’s Media at Present”, mars 1996.
 
Translated from the French by Grant Rosenberg.

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Photo credits: CrucifixJEL.deviantart.com
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  • 1. NHK Public Relations Department, NHK Annual Report 2010/2011, April 2011, p. 18.
  • 2. Philippe Berthet, Jean-Claude Redonnet, L’audiovisuel au Japon, Que sais-je, Paris, 1992, p. 7.
  • 3. Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, Broadcasting in Japan. The Twentieth Century Journey from Radio to Multimedia, NHK, Tokyo, 2002, p. 29.
  • 4. Masami Ito (dir.), Broadcasting in Japan. Case studies on Broadcasting systems, Routledge, London, 2011 (1st ed. 1978), p. 64-65; NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, op. cit., p. 5.
  • 5. Ibid., p. 16 Cf. article InaGlobal on Yomiuri.
  • 6. Ibid., p. 31-32.
  • 7. NHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 5.
  • 8. Masami Ito (dir.), op. cit., p. 55.
  • 9. NHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 18. Exchange rate of 12 May 2011 (1 dollar = 80 yen).
  • 10. Philippe Mesmer, “Au Japon, la NHK vit avec les recettes de la redevance“, Le Monde, 30 janvier 2008.
  • 11. NHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 18.
  • 12. NHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p18; as a comparison, in the same period, France Television earned 3.1 billion euros, or $4.4 billion USD. Cf. Paule Gonzales, « Les bons comptes 2010 de France Télévisions », Le Figaro, 28 avril 2011.
  • 13. NHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 18.
  • 14. Masami Ito (dir.), op. cit., p. 31.
  • 15. Ibid., p. 52.
  • 16. Philippe Berthet, Jean-Claude Redonnet, L’audiovisuel au Japon, Que sais-je, Paris, 1992, p. 58.
  • 17. Masami Ito (dir.), op. cit., p. 35.
  • 18. NHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 04.
  • 19. Meaning “descent from the sky.”
  • 20. Takesato Watanabe, “Japan’s Media at Present”, March 1996.
  • 21. Anthony Faiola, Scandals Force Out Japanese TV Chief Washington Post, January 26, 2005.
  • 22. Masami Ito (dir.), op. cit., p. 59.
  • 23. NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute, op. cit., p.84.
  • 24. ibid., p59.
  • 25. Philippe Berthet, Jean-Claude Redonnet, op. cit., p.24.
  • 26. Masami Ito (dir.), op. cit., p. 19-21.
  • 27. Ibid.,p. 20.
  • 28. Maxim Labat, “NTT et la NHK effectuent un transfert d'une vidéo Super Hi-Vision sur un réseau partagé”. Bulletins électroniques Japon n°565, February 25, 2011.
  • 29. “Le Japon au cœur de la télévision de demain”. La Croix, 4 juillet 2009.
  • 30. NHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 17.
  • 31. Masami Ito (dir.), op. cit., p.73.
  • 32. NHK Public Relations Department, op. cit., p. 18.
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