Climate in Crisis and planet in peril – but we’re squabbling over copyrights!

Climate in Crisis - a global documentary

Climate in Crisis - a global documentary

On my recent visit to Tokyo for a regional workshop on changing climate and moving images, I watched a number of excellent documentary films on the subject. One of them was Crude: The Incredible Journey of Oil, the excellent Australian film that I wrote about in March.

Another was Climate in Crisis, an outstanding global documentary in two parts (2 x 52 mins) co-produced in 2006 by Japan’s public broadcaster NHK together with The Science Channel and ALTOMEDIA/France 5.

Directed by Fujikawa Masahiro, the film draws heavily on the Earth Simulator — one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers — which Japanese scientists used to project the climatic disasters in next 100 years. The system was developed in 1997 for running global climate models to evaluate the effects of global warming and problems in solid earth geophysics. It has been able to run holistic simulations of global climate in both the atmosphere and the oceans — down to a resolution of 10 km.

NEC Earth Simulator in Japan

NEC Earth Simulator in Japan

The results, captured in this documentary, are truly mind-boggling. Atmospheric temperatures may rise by as much as 4.2 degrees Celsius, more hurricanes may attack and deserts may spread from Africa to southern Europe, and half of the Amazon rainforest may be gone. Climate in Crisis shows a severe projection on environmental destruction based on rigorous scientific data and considers whether humankind can avoid this.

This film, made in the same year as Al Gore’s Oscar-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, has won several awards including the Earth Vision Award at the 15th Earth Vision Tokyo Global Environmental Film Festival.

I was curious why this excellent film – in my view, better made than Al Gore’s one – hasn’t been more widely seen, talked about and distributed. To be honest, I’d not even heard of this one until my Japan visit — and I try to keep myself informed on what’s new in my field of endeavour.

The reasons soon became apparent: copyright restrictions! The co-producers are keeping the rights so tight that only the highest bidders will be allowed to acquire it on a license fee.

This is a standard broadcast industry practice that didn’t surprise me. But I was taken aback by how jealously the rights are guarded. All other films that were part of our event, including high budget commercial productions like Crude, were screened to the public at the Parthenon in Tama New Town in Tokyo.

Not so with Climate in Crisis, which we – the overseas participants to the workshop – had to watch at a theatre inside NHK’s Tokyo headquarters. No public screening was possible. As we later heard, NHK itself was willing to allow a public screening (after all, it draws a good part of its income from the Japanese public), but their international co-producing partners, especially the Science Channel, would simply not agree to it. Wow.

Twenty centuries ago, emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. Today, some people are squabbling over copyrights while the whole planet is in peril.

Earth in 2100 - as seen by Earth Simulator

Earth in 2100 - as seen by Earth Simulator

Our workshop participants came from solid backgrounds in broadcasting or independent film-making, and we are not naive activists asking hard-nosed broadcasters to let go of their precious rights which generates vital income. But we would have expected them to allow films such as Climate in Crisis to circulate a bit more freely in everybody’s interest.

This reminded me of correspondence I had last year with the Canadian producers of another outstanding climate film titled The Great Warming. The initial discussions with its director were promising, but when the distribution people started talking about ‘revenue optimising’, our negotiations stalled.

It also reminded me of similar experiences of other environment and natural history film makers, such as South Africa’s Neil Curry. He had a long struggle with the BBC to clear the non-broadcast use rights of his own film that he wanted to take back to the locations in Botswana where it was filmed.

Many broadcast and production companies in the west don’t realise that TV broadcasters in developing Asia operate on a very different basis. Talking about broadcast ‘pre-sales’ or ‘commissions’ loses meaning when many stations are operating on tiny budgets — or in some cases, no budgets — for factual content. Many are struggling to survive in tough, emerging economies.

Is this our future?

Is this our future?

TVE Asia Pacific operates a regional film distribution service that brings environment and development films within reach of such broadcasters. We operate without getting mired in license fees or royalties.

Our 2-day workshop called for climate change to be recognised as a ‘copyright free zone’. This would enable audio-visual media content on the subject to move freely across borders and to be used widely for broadcast and narrowcast purposes.

Here’s the full reference from our statement of concern:

“Prevailing copyright regimes prevent the sharing and wider use of outstanding TV programmes and video films on climate and development issues. We are deeply concerned that even content developed partly or wholly with public funding (government grants, donor funds or lottery funds) remain unfairly locked into excessive copyright restrictions. Sometimes film-makers and producers themselves are willing but unable to allow their creations to be used for non-commercial purposes by educational, civil society and advocacy groups. We appreciate the media industry’s legitimate needs for intellectual property management and returns on investment. At the same time, the climate crisis challenges us to adopt extraordinary measures, one of which can and should be recognising climate change as a ‘copyright free zone’. Such agreement would encourage media organisations and independent producers to share content across borders, and with entities outside the media industry engaged in climate education, advocacy and activism.”

Here’s the simple question I raised during the workshop, which is worth being posed to all those who hesitate to even discuss this issue:

Can anyone manage their intellectual property rights on a dead planet?

This is the real question!

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