Japan’s public broadcaster NHK is trying to transform itself with a crazy idea: Let’s get on the internet.

It's time to enter the 21st century by moving beyond television.

By Tim Hornyak
Splice Japan
NHK digital transformation. Illustration by Rishad Patel
Illustration by Rishad Patel

Move into a new apartment in Japan and sooner or later you’ll be visited by someone from NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster.

Nippon Hoso Kyokai, as it’s formally known in Japanese, depends on dues collected from Japanese households with televisions, and so staffers go door-to-door to make sure that people to register and pay. In its budget for fiscal 2017, which ends March 31, it expects revenues of ¥689.2 billion ($6 billion) from receiving fees, its main source of revenue.

As Japanese as Mt. Fuji?

If that sounds like an old-school media business model in 2017, it reflects a larger need to update a sprawling corporation that has changed little in decades. As more and more people watch more video on demand services instead of television, NHK is struggling to stay relevant.

According to a 2016 NHK survey of viewers aged 7 and above (PDF, Japanese only, is here), overall TV viewership in Japan fell in nearly all age groups compared to 10 years earlier. Viewership among men in their 30s was down significantly, from 95% in 2016 to 83% in 2016. Meanwhile, NHK’s monthly reports (in Japanese) show that in surveys of 3,600 people, the ratio of those who watch its flagship NHK General TV channel more than five minutes per week has fallen from 60.6% in June 2010 to 54.7% in June 2017.

As with the BBC and Britain, NHK is almost synonymous with Japan itself.

NHK’s predecessor made Japan’s first radio broadcast in 1925, and the 1950 Broadcast Law established it as the nation’s public broadcaster.

And its historical dramas, newscasts and annual year-end “Kohaku Uta Gassen” singing contest are part of the fabric of Japanese life, but despite its mission of editorial independence it is sometimes accused of acting as a mouthpiece for the Japanese government.

With some 10,200 staff, 54 domestic stations and 30 overseas bureaus, as well as industry-shaping R&D that has pioneered innovations such as 8K Super Hi-Vision, NHK’s clout and taxpayer-funded financial backing is the envy of Japan’s private-sector broadcasters.

The path to modernization

But NHK is trying to transform itself for the 21st century by moving beyond TV.

While it preempted its commercial rivals in announcing plans for simulcasting in 2015, NHK president Ryoichi Ueda said earlier this year that the corporation wants to become “a public media company” by expanding its internet broadcasts.

Its NHK Hybridcast, debuted in 2013, allows internet content to be embedded in digital broadcasts. Meanwhile, it provides simultaneous internet broadcasts of news during emergencies such as natural disasters or dangerous weather conditions such as typhoons.

The NHK on Demand service is a fee-based video on demand platform carrying content for about two weeks after its TV broadcast.  

While these interactive features, as well as clips from news broadcasts, are already available online, NHK plans to simultaneously broadcast on TV and the internet by 2019, the year before Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.  

“We need to widen the range of viewing opportunities to satisfy viewers and the public,” Ueda was quoted as saying by Nikkei Asian Review during an interview with several Japanese news media. The broadcaster has said it’s considering allowing households with existing TV contracts to view its internet broadcasts free of charge, according to Japanese media reports.  

The moves come as the government pushes all networks to offer simulcasts starting in 2019, so that viewers can watch content on any kind of internet device.

Commercial rivals cool on simulcasts

“As a ‘public media’, NHK hopes to deliver information and content to more people by utilizing not only broadcasting, but also the internet,” NHK said in a statement in response to questions from Splice on the aims and scope of simulcast services.

“The use of the internet was carried out to complement broadcasting, enhance its functions and effect, and to achieve the purpose of NHK as described in the broadcasting law.”

NHK’s position on simulcasting and its fees is a sensitive topic as private TV networks in Japan already struggling to deal with the explosion in popularity of video-on-demand services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Abema, a Japanese platform.

By putting off fees for online viewing, NHK may be trying to ease concerns among those networks, which have opposed simulcasting due to fears that it may further erode viewership of local stations.

“The goal of NHK is to create the same content on the internet as on terrestrial TV,” says Yoshihiro Oto, a professor of journalism at Sophia University in Tokyo, who believes that based on surveys by NHK and other groups, viewers don’t really want simulcast services; an NHK broadcast experiment last year found only 6% of viewers used simulcast.   

“I think this is a big challenge for NHK because it wants to make simultaneous broadcasting a regular service in the future for financial reasons,” Oto says.

Tim Hornyak is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo. He is the author of Loving the Machine: The Art and Science of Japanese Robots. Follow Tim Hornyak on Twitter.

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