NHK’s Business: Expansion of Internet Services Highlights Lack of Discussion

It cannot be overlooked that NHK will expand its internet operations in an unregulated manner while leaving important issues unresolved, such as the appropriate subscription fee system and ensuring fair competition with private companies.

An expert panel of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry that has been discussing the proprieties of expanding NHK’s internet business has concluded that internet operations, such as the distribution of broadcast programs, should be upgraded to an “essential business” along with broadcasting.

The expert panel also proposed that those who do not have TV sets but watch programs online should be required to “bear a reasonable cost.”

The current Broadcast Law defines NHK’s primary business as broadcasting, therefore the online business is considered an optional service that complements broadcasting. This is because NHK is funded by viewing fees from TV broadcasting.

To make internet operations part of NHK’s essential business, a revision of the Broadcast Law would be needed. Making the change would have a significant impact on the management of NHK and other media organizations, but it does not appear that the expert panel has fully examined and discussed these issues.

First of all, the ideal form of the subscription fee system should be addressed. The expert panel called for collecting fees from internet users, for example, when they download a smartphone app and register their personal information in order to watch a program.

Despite the fact that this issue touches on the very foundation of the subscription fee system, one cannot shake the impression that the proposed change was presented abruptly. The panel says that the current viewing fees will be maintained as they are. Given these circumstances, suspicion remains that the proposed change will bloat NHK’s business without any debate.

If broadcasting and internet operations are to be the twin pillars of NHK’s business, it is essential to have a thorough discussion on whether the subscription fee system can remain as it is now.

The second issue to be addressed is concern about a burden on the private sector. Commercial broadcasters, newspapers and other media organizations that engage in online distribution have the responsibility to deliver accurate news as media outlets, and at the same time, they are faced with the challenge of surviving as a corporation.

On the other hand, NHK is exempt from paying corporate tax as a special corporation while receiving stable revenues from viewing fees exceeding ¥600 billion a year.

If NHK expands its internet operations while enjoying such preferential treatment, some media organizations may not be able to survive, and this could undermine the pluralism of media and speech that supports democracy.

The role of public broadcasting is another important issue. The current Broadcast Law was enacted in 1950, when entertainment was scarce. More than 70 years have passed since then, and the media and entertainment industries have diversified.

In recent years, NHK has created entertainment programs similar to those of private broadcasters, but are these programs really necessary? The scope of the programs NHK provides should also be reconsidered.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 31, 2023)