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Editorial: NHK reform talk in Japan must ask, 'What's the purpose of public broadcasting?'

A communications ministry expert committee in Japan has convened to consider the future of public broadcaster NHK. The primary focus of the discussions is virtually certain to be reception fees, which most households in Japan are required to pay to fund the commercial-free broadcaster's operations.

TV broadcasts began in Japan nearly 70 years ago, but with the rise of the internet, the sector is now at a turning point. Time spent watching TV is down, especially among young people, while streaming content that people can take in on their smartphones or tablets is increasingly popular. NHK is looking to catch the wave with the launch this spring of NHK Plus, which streams programs at the same time they are broadcast for conventional television.

Meanwhile, the number of households in Japan is projected to peak in 2023 before slipping into decline. The number of households that do not even have a TV is already rising. In the not so distant past, the TV was the center of Japan's living rooms and family leisure time, but that feeling, too, is in relative decline.

To ensure a stable future for public broadcasting, NHK's receiving fee system must be reformed to match the shifting times. The expert committee is expected to look to some public broadcaster funding models used overseas. Options likely to be debated include charging the fee to all households nationwide regardless of whether they have a TV or "receiving device" or not, and ways to charge people only watching programs over the internet.

At present, about 20% of Japan's households are not paying the NHK reception fee. Gaining public understanding for whatever form the fee takes will be essential to keeping the system running.

The first step needs to be to question the duties and purpose of NHK itself, and rebuild its corporate governance.

The public broadcaster takes in more than 700 billion yen (about $6.52 billion) annually in reception fees, from which its programming production budget is drawn. Meanwhile, it has also spent enormous sums on setting up its content streaming service and on creating 4K and 8K super high-definition channels. There are worries that NHK is becoming bloated, as well as pressuring commercial broadcasters' business.

However, what is most important is that the public broadcaster maintain a fair and impartial stance. Without that guarantee, it will not be able to maintain viewer trust. And without viewer trust, there can be no discussion of appropriate reception fees.

Questions of governance go right to the top. In relation to an NHK program that pulled the curtain back on predatory sales tactics at Japan Post Insurance Co., the broadcaster's Board of Governors -- its highest decision-making body -- voted to issue a formal warning to the then head of NHK. This looked dangerously like the kind of management interference with the content of individual NHK programs that is specifically forbidden under the Broadcast Act, and was a grave situation indeed.

Public broadcasting is an extremely important piece of social infrastructure, especially during emergencies like natural disasters or the present novel coronavirus crisis. NHK's high-quality documentaries have earned a good reputation from many viewers.

Deliberations on the best form for a reception fee should be conducted through the lens of questioning what it means to be a public broadcaster.

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