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NHK online broadcast plans falter under Japan gov't, public pressure over fees, spending

Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Sanae Takaichi is seen responding to questions at the House of Representatives' Committee on Internal Affairs and Communications, on Nov. 19, 2019, in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo. (Mainichi/Masahiro Kawata)

TOKYO -- Public broadcaster NHK's plans to implement a system enabling constant simultaneous broadcasts of its programs on TV and online in fiscal 2019 have been stalled, with the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications ordering a reassessment of the plan on Nov. 8 after receiving an application for approval.

This is because Minister for Internal Affairs and Communications Sanae Takaichi views NHK's insufficient efforts to improve its management, including its failure to reduce its viewer fees, as problematic.

But NHK, which has seen its plan to simultaneously broadcast its programs on TV and online as its trump card to transform itself into "public media," has been troubled by the minister's decision.

"Once Takaichi was placed in the job, this outcome was foreseeable," a high-ranking official at the ministry said with an air of resignation, as they described their reaction to the minister's rejection of the plan. Typically, the ministry accepted applications by NHK while including notes on what they want changed; an outright refusal is uncommon.

U.S. video streaming sites such as Netflix are continuing to make strides in the Japanese market, and the ministry had been encouraging NHK to bolster its online content offerings as part of what it saw as necessary efforts to resist the momentum of overseas firms. But that all changed in September, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe carried out a Cabinet reshuffle that saw Sanae Takaichi return to the top of the ministry after two years away from the job.

Takaichi, who has experience working as a TV presenter for a private broadcaster in Japan, was known for her harsh stance toward NHK during her previous tenure, which lasted from 2014 to 2017. At that time, she vigorously pursued the so-called "trinity of reforms" at the broadcaster, which comprised slimming down the organization, cutting viewing fees, and strengthening governance. In July 2017 she employed forceful measures to effectively recall high-ranking officials at the ministry proceeding with revisions to the Broadcasting Act.

During a press conference to mark her reappointment to the ministry, Takaichi was asked how she felt about the revisions having been passed while she was away from the post. She made no attempt to hide her displeasure, answering, "That's a rather difficult question."

What Takaichi saw as problematic was NHK's commitment to providing all of its programming online at once. Its proposal detailed costs to enact the simultaneous online broadcasts totaling 3.8% of its income from viewer fees, significantly over the 2.5% upper limit for the scheme. The overspend was expected to put NHK into a deficit of some 21.5 billion yen in fiscal 2020.

On the trinity of reforms, Takaichi has aired her dissatisfaction regarding their handling to those around her, commenting that they appear to have been neglected. The latest proposal's content, which rowed back on some of the reforms, appeared to be unpalatable to the minister.

At a Nov. 8 press conference, Takaichi sent a strong warning to NHK, saying, "Its efforts are carried out with revenues raised from everyone's viewing fees. Once the reforms have advanced, I want them to look carefully at what is necessary for them to do."

Along with the concerns inside the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, some are saying the online broadcast plans must be put on hold in consideration of public opinion. NHK has indicated it doesn't intend to collect viewer fees from people who have an internet connection but no television once the new simultaneous service is launched.

But lawsuits that have attempted to refute the demands for fees from owners of smartphones, car navigation systems and other devices with television functionality have continued to be ruled in NHK's favor. The developments have led many people to voice concerns that internet users will become the next group forced to start paying.

When public comment was opened for the proposed revisions to the ministerial ordinance in relation to changes to the Broadcasting Act, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications received 48,165 opinions -- the highest number in its history. A majority of them expressed views opposing the broadcaster's online expansion.

The "Party to Protect the People from NHK," which seeks to have a scrambled broadcasting system put in place so that only those who wish to watch NHK will be required to pay the fees, won a seat in the House of Councillors election held in July. Its success highlighted dissatisfaction toward the current rules around viewer fees.

(Japanese original by Akiko Kato, Business News Department)

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