The Crisis in North Korea and the Challenge for NHK World (Part Two)

Politics Society

From Global Broadcaster to Subcontractor

In part one of this article I explained the background to the decision to establish a Japan-based, English-language broadcasting organ like CNN. Based on the consensus that such a broadcaster was necessary, Japan International Broadcasting Inc. (JIB) was established in April 2008. But today, nearly four years later, the original goals and guiding vision of this organization have been abandoned, and it is clear that JIB is nothing more than an NHK program production subsidiary.

The event that decisively altered JIB’s fate was the launching in February 2009 by NHK of news programming targeting the entire world, including news in English at the top of every hour, through its own NHK World service. NHK, of course, is Japan’s quasi state-run TV (the letters stand for Nihon Hōsō Kyōkai or Japan Broadcasting Corporation). Although nothing was ever said officially, JIB subsequently metamorphosed into an NHK subcontractor, in charge of the production of something over 30% of NHK World’s programming content. With more than half of its income coming from the production fees for NHK World, JIB was basically dependent on NHK.

In other words, JIB became just one of a countless number of subsidiaries of the giant quasi state-run broadcaster. And it was a small one at that, with just 42 full-time employees (as of July 1, 2011).

Responsibility for this, I should imagine, lies not only with NHK but the Japanese government as well.

At the time of JIB’s establishment, the government sought to secure the necessary funds for the new venture by tapping private-sector investment, maintaining that it did not have money to invest in the undertaking itself. But the commercial broadcasters and other firms that the government approached were willing to take no more than token shares in the new entity, probably because NHK retained the ownership by keeping more than 50 per cent of JIB’s shares.

To this day, not a single popular drama or music program from a commercial broadcaster has been aired on JIB. Not unsurprisingly, commercial stations want to hold on to money-making programs and sell them on their own. The government’s initial calculations were overly optimistic.

The government should have known better. Never before has a broadcaster of this sort secured enough revenue to be self-sufficient through advertising alone. For example, Al Jazeera, which airs programs in Arabic and English, was at the outset totally reliant on funding from the emir of Qatar. When JIB was established, the Japanese government should have provided capital similar to what Al Jazeera got, investing ¥10 billion (about $130 million at the current rate of exchange) or at the very least a few billion yen. Instead, JIB started off with no government funding at all and a mere ¥390 million ($5 million) in capital.

A Star Search that Never Was

Part of the responsibility also lies with NHK, which confined its search for JIB staff to within its own organization. It is the only network I know of to launch a global English-language channel without any apparent attempts to lure even a single star reporter away from places like CNN or BBC in its search for talent.

NHK would probably say that outside talent was a luxury it could not afford. But it is clear that from the start NHK had no intention of making JIB into a fully independent company and finding talented people from around the world to staff it.

Lacking money, a network of overseas bureaus, and an advertising budget, JIB hoped its web-based broadcasting would somehow gain a viewership across the world. This is one reason why they needed the engineering knowhow of Microsoft Corporation, which was made a minority shareholder. It has to be said, however, that their assumption that the web could somehow attract viewers by itself was based on a deeply flawed understanding of Internet business models.

JIB’s website is proof of inactivity. The original web design continues to be used, without even the slightest change.

JIB probably figured that becoming an NHK subsidiary was the only way it could survive and preserve the jobs of its 40 or so employees. “Japan International Broadcasting” turned out to be too weighty a name. To be honest, the company should identify itself as an NHK World content provider.

The turnaround in perceptions of the role of JIB came less than a year after its establishment. NHK officials may have been hit by the realization that JIB would never be self-sufficient. Or perhaps the instinct of organizational self-preservation drove it to monopolize global broadcasting and eliminate outside interference. Whatever the case, in February 2009, NHK decided to undertake English-language global broadcasting itself, through NHK World into which JIB was effectively absorbed.

One could accept this move if NHK World were putting up a good fight in the oligopolistic market for international English-language news broadcasting. This brings us back to my original topic.

(December 20, 2011. To be continued in Part Three.)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

government NHK World CNN Taniguchi Tomohiko JIB Japan International Broadcasting Inc. quasi state-run broadcaster private BBC Al Jazeera