By Takuya Sasajima and Yasuaki Kobayashi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersCharging reception fees for a system that allows broadcast TV programs to be streamed live online is justifiable, according to a report that was submitted on July 25 by NHK’s Committee to Examine the Receiving Fee System, an advisory body to the nation’s public broadcaster’s president.
The committee, chaired by Senshu University Prof. Hideyoshi Ando, presented a clear proposal for the role of reception fees in an era when terrestrial broadcasting and telecommunications are intertwined.
However, commercial broadcasters are worried this might lead to the overwhelming expansion of NHK, and the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry has voiced strong opposition.
There are high hurdles to clear before a live streaming system can be introduced.
Advances seen overseas
On the day NHK President Ryoichi Ueda received the report from Ando, he stressed that the nation’s public broadcaster will work toward the introduction of live streaming.
“NHK will keep broadcasting as our main backbone, and also utilize the internet to deliver information and programs to more people,” he said.
The growth of the internet greatly changed the media and TV landscape.
Public broadcasters in advanced countries in Europe and South Korea have already responded by offering live streaming of broadcast TV.
In Japan, the percentage of households that do not have TV sets is estimated to be about 5 percent, and this figure mainly comprises young people who predominantly use PCs or smartphones to view content.
NHK has been advocating the need for live streaming on the basis that broadcasting alone will not be able to fulfill its mission of being “society’s information gateway” in the future.
The report states that demanding reception fees from viewers who stream content would be legitimate because the service is of a similar nature to broadcast TV.
Concerns about fairness
However, there are objections with regard to NHK’s assertion that offering live streaming is a public service. NHK sought opinions on the draft report on the issue from the end of June to July 11.
The Japan Commercial Broadcasters Association said, “On the internet, where a diverse range of independent entities disseminate information, NHK’s service to the public isn’t self-evident.”
The needs and understanding of people and viewers are indispensable before reception fees for live streaming can be collected.
NHK conducted a trial of live streaming for three weeks from November to December last year. Of 9,500 participants in the experiment, about 5,000 viewers were analyzed, and it was found that only 6 percent of them streamed content live.
This rate was lower than the 8.5 percent of viewers who streamed catch-up TV, in which programs are viewable online for a specified period after the broadcast.
To minimize the impact on the existing reception fee system, the July 25 report concluded that it is appropriate not to seek additional fees from households that already have a contract to receive terrestrial TV.
It stated that fees for live streaming should be collected from households without TV sets that view NHK programs online using PCs or smartphones.
The report also suggests the possibility of delaying the introduction of reception fees for live streaming until the new system is fully understood by the general public.
In fiscal 2016, the revenue from reception fee payments was about ¥680 billion, but the percentage of people who pay fees stood at 79 percent.
Therefore, streaming live TV for free is likely to increase a sense of unfairness among the public.
To introduce live streaming, the Broadcast Law needs to be revised.
“Taking law revision, among other things, into consideration from various perspectives, I hope NHK will come up with concrete ideas and plans based on the report,” Ando said at a July 25 press conference.
A report that includes the requirement of a revision of law could be considered idealistic. NHK must present a realistic proposal.
Ministry: Reforms needed before consideration
Then Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Sanae Takaichi referred to the draft report released in late June, expressing a negative view over its introduction at this stage.
“Many issues have been left unaddressed, and people’s needs and services have yet to be made clear,” she said at a press conference on July 7.
The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry considers it essential for NHK to lower reception fees and improve management efficiency if it is to introduce a live streaming service. Complaints are simmering within the ministry that NHK is not fully implementing reforms.
It is believed that live streaming would impact local commercial broadcasters most. For local stations whose revenues are low compared with major stations in Tokyo, introducing live streaming, which requires additional capital investment and operational expenses, on their own would put a strain on their operations. One local commercial broadcaster official said, “If NHK introduced live streaming, it would be impossible for commercial broadcasters to avoid. But for local stations, streaming live TV 24 hours a day is inconceivable — it is a completely different proposition for NHK, which operates nationwide.”
At a meeting of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry’s expert panel held on July 4, a senior NHK official said, “We would like to be allowed to make live streaming one of NHK’s main services in the future.”
Commercial broadcasters are wary of NHK’s moves to make online streaming, which up until now has been a supplemental service, one of its core businesses alongside regular broadcasting. “If it [NHK’s streaming service] becomes too large, I feel that it will disrupt the balance with commercial broadcasters,” Nippon TV President Yoshio Okubo said.
“Something is not quite right [about the proposal],” TBS President Shinji Takeda said. “I wonder if they can guarantee that [live streaming] is of the same public nature as [regular] broadcasting.”
The question is what form NHK should assume in the age of the internet.