Expansion of public broadcaster’s online business raises concerns

It makes no sense for NHK to endlessly expand its online business, using receiving fees collected from TV viewers. The public broadcaster should prevent its business operations from gradually bloating.

A working group of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry has held its first meeting to review NHK’s online streaming of programs. A conclusion will be reached on the matter next summer after experts discuss it, the ministry said.

The Broadcast Law defines NHK’s basic operations as radio and television broadcasting, while its online operations are optional, to complement its main operations. Currently, the annual budget for NHK’s online operations is capped at ¥20 billion.

The working group is said to be considering whether to upgrade NHK’s online business to a primary operation. However, such a move would inevitably raise concerns.

As the trend away from TV has accelerated, particularly among young people, NHK has begun offering services that allow viewers to watch TV programs on smartphones and computers.

In 2020, the public broadcaster fully launched the “NHK Plus” service, through which programs broadcast on terrestrial TV can be viewed simultaneously on the internet. This spring, NHK conducted a trial to stream programs online, mainly for people who do not watch TV. It also provides news content to search engine websites.

However, such services have also been offered by private companies as part of their business operations. This means that NHK is competing not only with commercial broadcasters, which are its traditional rivals, but also with other entities that distribute articles and videos online, such as local and other newspapers and news service agencies.

NHK is a special public corporation and does not need to seek profits. It earns about ¥700 billion a year in receiving fees, but is exempt from paying corporate taxes.

If NHK invests ample funds in its online business while receiving such preferential treatment, fair competition between NHK and private-sector entities will never be realized. This situation could even threaten to undermine diversity in speech.

It is only natural that Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Minoru Terada said at the working group’s first meeting, “It is necessary to listen to concerns regarding the bloating of NHK’s operations, as well as concerns regarding the pressure it puts on private-sector businesses.”

First and foremost, there have been strong doubts over NHK channeling revenue from receiving fees paid by TV owners into its online business. Some observers speculate that NHK might try to collect receiving fees from smartphone owners, too.

NHK is called on to provide high-quality programs worthy of public broadcasting. It must not neglect its original role by expanding its online business.

NHK should first streamline its organization before expanding its online operations. It is hoped that the public broadcaster will swiftly present specific restructuring measures, including consolidating and abolishing subsidiaries that compete with private companies in such areas as event planning and product sales.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Sept. 26, 2022)