EDITORIAL: NHK fee cuts
Any time a store cuts its prices, customers are bound to be pleased. But in the case of Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK), we have to wonder what is going on. It seems strange that NHK is considering lowering its fees for the first time, given the dire financial crunch it faces. This was brought on by the refusal of many TV viewers to pay fees as a mark of protest over a series of embezzlement scandals at NHK. It would appear there is political maneuvering behind the scenes.
Yoshihide Suga, minister of internal affairs and communications, told NHK that if it cut fees by around 20 percent the government would agree to pass legislation to make payment of fees mandatory, thus raising the prospect of a higher collection rate.
Under the ministry's trial calculations, the mandatory payments system would raise the collection rate in five years to 80-85 percent from the current 70 percent, pushing annual revenues by 75 billion yen to 120 billion yen.
NHK President Genichi Hashimoto seemed reluctant to agree to a 20-percent cut. Clearly, though, he realized Suga would not be satisfied if NHK did not offer any cut. Hashimoto made several proposals on the issue to NHK's management committee, the company's highest decision-making body.
NHK plans to incorporate the committee's conclusions into its five-year management plan starting in fiscal 2008.
The coming fee cuts will likely be in the range of several percent to 10 percent at most for savings of between 50 yen and 100 yen per month. Even within NHK, doubts are being voiced about this plan. "Certainly, fee cuts of even 100 yen or 200 yen a month are a far cry from what the public has been demanding." "Any move will only be significant if it includes a major rate slash." This kind of talk comes from none other than Shigetaka Komori, the new chairman of the NHK management committee.
But even more serious problems are at work here. NHK, after all, is an organization that inevitably is scrutinized to ensure it maintains a proper distance from political circles. But if it turns out that NHK is cutting viewer fees because of political pressure, viewer distrust could soar to even greater heights. This is a genuine source of concern.
Another oddity about this talk of fee cuts is that the scenario is playing out while other radical reforms, streamlining the organization, for example, seem to be consigned to the wayside.
With the inclusion of radio and satellite broadcasting, NHK currently operates eight channels. The total income of NHK-related entities is on a par with that of a key commercial TV stations.
Among the swelling number of programs produced by NHK, we have doubts that some really deserve to stay on the airwaves through viewer-fee funding. Many NHK programs differ little from those of private broadcasters. While such an approach may have been more acceptable in the era when the capacity of commercial channels was weak, today there is a need to rethink the true meaning of public broadcasting.
Over the five-year span of the coming management plan, TV stations will end analog broadcasts and shift to the digital mode. Thus, there is a pressing need to define the division of roles between NHK and private broadcasters in the digital age.
NHK needs to narrow its programming to selections that are truly suitable for public broadcasting. Based on that stance, it could reduce its network by, say, three channels or so. Such a move could in fact make it possible to implement "a major rate slash."
The new management plan is a golden opportunity for NHK to draw up a road map of reform and start afresh. Before politicians or government officials start meddling, NHK needs to embark on its own bold reform vision. In the absence of such efforts, the organization will never gain the status of "everyone's NHK."
--The Asahi Shimbun, July 27(IHT/Asahi: July 28,2007)