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Sunday, Jan. 15, 2006

MEDIA MIX

TV IN THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION

NHK has a public duty so how about free streaming from its library?


Since last August the National Association of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan (NAB) has been running a nationwide TV ad campaign to promote television commercials.

Featuring a cartoon monkey named Coma-saru and a jingle written and sung by pop superstar Tatsuro Yamashita, the ads invite viewers to "enjoy CM," as if "commercial messages" themselves were just another consumer product.

The reason for this campaign is the proliferation of digital devices that allow viewers to record programs and skip over commercials and station breaks, a development that worries advertisers and, in turn, broadcasters, who make their money from advertisements.

Actually, many commercials are much more entertaining than the shows they support, but the NAB's strategy flouts logic.

The target demographic is assumed to be people who are already avoiding commercials electronically, which means they're probably avoiding the "Enjoy CM" commercials too.

Given the speed at which digital technology is progressing, the Enjoy CM campaign will probably have little effect even if people do get the message.

Home computers, iPods and mobile phones are all encroaching on territory that the television set has had all to itself for more than half-a-century.

Several Japanese broadcast networks are forging deals with Internet providers to stream programs and other content. According to an article in the Dec. 23 Japan Times, Japanese television stations will begin offering "terrestrial digital broadcasting" services for mobile phones "next April."

How broadcasters will earn revenue from all this is still being worked out, but as proved by last year's attempted stock takeovers of Fuji TV and TBS by Internet companies, as long as the networks control content they can work from a position of strength.

TV programs are expensive to produce. At the very least, networks can make money just by selling content that is now just sitting on their shelves -- programs that may be 30 years old or 30 days old.

Does that mean the end of free TV as we know it?

As it stands, commercial television is plagued by a lack of variety simply because the outdated ratings system has locked broadcasters into a game of one-upmanship that spurs them into copying one another's successes. Pay TV might open up niches that could lead to innovation and, like HBO and other subscription cable channels in the United States, force broadcast networks to compete in terms of quality.

Though NHK is a public broadcaster and thus ostensibly beholden to no commercial interests, it is operated on a subscription basis.

According to the Broadcast Law, every household in Japan with a TV set is required to pay a monthly fee to NHK, but unlike the BBC there is no penalty provision.

NHK is threatening to bring legal action against people who don't contribute, but it's problematic as to how they can punish TV owners who say they never watch NHK.

The broadcasters' loss of subscribers two years ago was initially precipitated by scandal, but with more choices people may simply opt out if the company isn't giving them what they want.

The government is discussing what form NHK should take in the future.

Some people think it should change the subscription method to a straight tax. Another option, recommended by a government panel on regulatory reform, would be a scramble system: if you don't pay your fee, then NHK shuts off your access to their programming. Such a system would eliminate fairness complaints, but it would essentially turn NHK into a pay TV entity like satellite channel WOWOW, which means revenues wouldn't be guaranteed. France and South Korea have similar systems and they have to take on sponsors.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has indicated he'd like to see NHK restructured as a special corporation with the option of becoming private, something that the commercial broadcasters are very much against. NHK isn't crazy about it either and has said it would prefer to keep the present system because it has a responsibility as a "public" (ko-kyo) entity. It is not expected to compete and should offer the kind of culture and information programming that commercial stations cannot.

However, if subscriptions don't keep up with costs, privatization may be inevitable, which means that NHK could go the way of other formerly public entities, like NTT and Japan National Railways (JNR).

The issue with privatizing these entities was that the citizens, who in theory if not if fact owned them when they were public, were invariably cheated. NTT built its telecommunications networks by selling expensive "rights" for telephone lines that are now worthless. Taxpayers are still paying off JNR's old debts while its private successors, the various JR companies, are closing down lines in rural areas to boost profitability.

If NHK goes private, what will happen to its vast library of programs, all of which were paid for by subscribers? If and when they become available for download in the brave new world of digital broadcasting, will viewers have to pay the same price that they pay for programs made by companies which were always commercial?

As it stands, even if you want to watch an NHK video or DVD you have to buy or rent it -- unless you go to NHK's archives in Kawaguchi, Saitama Prefecture, where you can watch it for free.

The vast majority of Japanese don't live near Kawaguchi, but every day more and more hook up to broadband Internet service. If NHK was truly serious about its "public responsibility," then offering its library for streaming free of charge would go a long way toward gaining viewers' trust. NHK President Genichi Hashimoto recently said that the broadcaster's original purpose was to provide a medium where every citizen could share the gift of culture. Here's the perfect way to achieve that purpose.



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