NHK: A public broadcaster that cares for its public

NHK is Japan's sole public broadcaster

NHK is Japan's sole public broadcaster

My regular readers know the disdain with which I hold the so-called public broadcasters in my part of the world. In developing Asia, which lacks sufficient checks and balances to ensure independence of state broadcasters, the only thing ‘public’ about such channels is that they are often a drain on public money collected through taxes. Their service and loyalties are entirely to whichever political party, coalition or military dictator heading the government in office. A few months ago, I described Burmese TV as a good example.

I was delighted, therefore, to visit the headquarters of Japan’s sole public broadcaster NHK this week and find out how exceptional they are in being a public broadcaster that really cares for its funding and viewing public.

Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai has always identified itself to its audiences by the English pronunciation of its initials, NHK. Started as a radio service in 1926, it added television in 1953. Today, NHK runs two terrestrial TV channels, three satellite channels and three radio services – and has started offering more content online and for mobile devices as well. It also has international offerings in TV, radio and web through NHK World.

This massive broadcast operation is financed primarily by a license fee (called ‘receiving fee’ in Japan) paid by each Japanese household that owns a television set. Its TV channels don’t carry any advertising, although the corporation exploits its massive archive and often repurposes its products for commercial gain.

As NHK’s website says, “This (license) system enables the Corporation to maintain independence from any governmental and private organisation, and ensures that the opinions of viewers and listeners are assigned top priority.”

NHK’s license fee system is not unanimously endorsed by the Japanese public, and I later found out that growing numbers of households are declining to pay what currently works out to around US$30 per month (or a dollar a day). This debate has been sustained for several years, with public calls for administrative reform at NHK.

NHK Studio Park entrance

NHK Studio Park entrance

But NHK’s eagerness to engage the public is clearly evident, even to a visitor like myself who spent only an afternoon at NHK’s Studio Park in Shibuya. This is where the corporation’s production facilities are opened to the public every week day from 10 am to 5.30 pm.

NHK Studio Park is a living exhibit – the corporation’s executives and technical staff carry on with their real work amidst (mostly Japanese public) visitors who get to see how TV content is made. Part of the attraction is a museum of TV 55 years of TV broadcasting in Japan.

You're in our bigger picture!

Welcome to NHK: You're in our bigger picture!

Every visitor is welcomed by being captured by a TV camera with the image being projected live on to a giant screen at the reception. The camera zoomed in on each one in our tour party of ten – and gave us our 10 seconds of fame!

From then on, it offers various displays and interactive opportunities to find out how TV broadcasting has evolved, where it is today – and glimpses of where it is headed. NHK has been an industry leader in technological innovation. It launched digital satellite TV broadcasting in December 2000 and introduced digital terrestrial broadcasts in December 2003. The core technology is Hi-Vision (HDTV), which delivers clear, vivid pictures and CD-quality sound. More than 90% of the programming on NHK is now produced and aired in Hi-Vision.

Japan's countdown to analog switch-off

Japan's countdown to analog switch-off

In fact, Japan will be fully switching on to digital and switching off all analog TV transmissions on 24 July 2011. The countdown has already started and on the day I visited NHK (2 October 2008), it was 1,025 days away.

Studio Park makes good use of corridor space for varied displays of photos and archival videos on memorable moments in Japanese and world broadcasting history. Highlights of NHK’s most enduring productions in news, current affairs, culture programming and sports are also shared.

Some of NHK’s cultural and entertainment programmes have been exported successfully to other parts of Asia, offering some counterbalance to the western TV content. One that I recognised was Oshin, a serial drama of 297 episodes made in the early 1980s that has since been aired in close to 60 countries.

One of Studio Park’s star attractions offers to make a star of any visitor for a few minutes. It’s a newscasting studio where the visitor may sit and face the live camera and read a few lines suggested by the teleprompter – the device that enables news readers to look at their audience while sticking to a flowing text. The teleprompter text is available in Japanese and several other Asian languages.

Hu Jincao of China faces NHK camera

Hu Jincao of China faces NHK camera

Pham Thuy Trang from Vietnam reads NHK news

Pham Thuy Trang from Vietnam reads NHK news

Two members of our tour party took this news challenge (photos above), and being broadcast professionals, they performed admirably! While it was fun and games for us who are familiar with the medium’s inner working, I can imagine the educational and public relations value of this for people who only consume what television delivers every day and night.

We were also treated to a screening of what was called the world’s first 3D television without special glasses. It was a breathtaking film of about 10 minutes showing underwater scenes. In the dimly lit theatre, the screen felt more like a fish tank – the 3D effect was very real. Not being a techie, I don’t know how to verify the claim of this being a world first, but when this catches on, watching television will never be the same again…

As visitors move in and out of these interesting offerings, it was another day at work for NHK’s staff who carried on with their real productions in studios we passed by. We were allowed to photograph everything except across the viewing glass inside a studio when a recording was underway (lest the camera flashlights disturb it). The freedom to explore and experience, helped by the eternally courteous tour guides, was refreshing.

And what a contrast to many so-called public broadcast stations elsewhere in Asia which are more like battle fortresses with armed guards firmly keeping the public out (I suppose they expect their irate public to attack the stations because of the truly dreadful content they carry?).

Well, at least NHK seems to know who their masters are – the paying public. And as this image in one exhibit shows, NHK is aware of that little gadget in every viewer’s hand that can instantly nullify all the irinvestment, technology and creativity. If wielded for long enough by sufficient numbers, this can put mighty broadcasters out of business.

It’s a message that Asia’s other broadcasters – public and private – would do well to remember.

NHK knows who its bosses are...

NHK knows who its bosses are...

Note: My visit to Tokyo did not involve NHK funding in any manner. I was the guest of our partner TVE Japan, who paid for our admission tickets to enter NHK Studio Park.

Explore 50 years of NHK Television online

One Response to “NHK: A public broadcaster that cares for its public”

  1. Sandra Says:

    Thanks for sharing this glimpse of how a true public broadcast relates to its public. Elsewhere in Asia, we have state owned broadcasters who use the public airwaves (a common property resource), often rely on public funds and yet serve the narrow partisan interests of governments. Your own blog in the past called this pollution of the airwaves. I go further and see it as prostitution of the airwaves and public trust and funds.

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