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

Politics Society

What Al Jazeera English Did Differently

So is NHK World likely to become a major source of information for global viewers on events unfolding in Asia? Regrettably, I am afraid the answer has to be no. To back up this assertion, let me offer the contrasting example of Al Jazeera English.

Al Jazeera English started out in November 2006 as a new editorial division separate from the Arabic network, with a full lineup of talent lured away from BBC and other major broadcasters—not just professional news anchors and reporters but also producers and researchers. This is evidenced by the noticeable British accents that I always hear on the phone when calls come in from Al Jazeera’s office in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian base for its Asian news activities.

The well-honed news sense displayed by team of this sort is something NHK will never have. By “news sense,” I mean a feeling for when and how a story should be broken to boost viewership in places like Britain, the United States, Singapore, and Hong Kong. It is an intuition that can be fully tapped only by having reporters and producers from these places.

Al Jazeera English and NHK World are worlds apart in terms of the quality and speed of their spoken English, the sophistication of their visuals, and other aspects of the programs that are apparent to viewers as soon they switch on the channel. Al Jazeera English broadcasts unfold at a CNN-style pitch that is designed to stimulate all five senses. NHK World, by contrast, is bland to a degree rarely seen in the broadcasting industry. If Al Jazeera swings with the beat, NHK World has no groove, to use a music metaphor.

It is my opinion that most of these problems have their root in NHK’s failure to look for talented staff outside the organization.

A Strategic Move by China’s CCTV News

CCTV News, the international Chinese service that may be considered NHK World’s archrival, has done much better in this respect. Most of the reporters are not Chinese, and at least at first glance a viewer cannot tell the broadcasts are Chinese government propaganda. It definitely is propaganda, in as much as the scope of the content is controlled by Communist Party headquarters—but thanks to improvements in the quality of the regular offerings, an increasing number of the programs seem quite normal to viewers.

The biggest indicator that CCTV News means business was the decision taken to set up a Washington DC bureau in 2011. The broadcaster will likely hire American TV newscasters and other talent (presumably at generous salaries) and begin producing programs in Washington. The move was akin to building an encampment inside the enemy’s castle keep, and it was a clear indication that the service enjoys the full backing of the Chinese government.

The United States is the main target of China’s public diplomacy. No other country comes even close to it in importance. This can be seen from the number of Confucius Institutes located there. China has been setting up these institutes to offer instruction in the Chinese language in countries around the world. They number in double digits in most countries China regards as particularly important, but the United States is home to as many as 200 of them. The move by CCTV News to begin producing programs in Washington should be seen as a strategic investment along the same lines.

What the Numbers Show about NHK World

What statistical evidence is available to back up my assertions? YouTube, I decided, might offer some actual numbers to back up my conviction that NHK World petered out before it even got going, while CCTV News has been waging a strong offensive campaign.

YouTube is a website that lets individuals and institutions around the world upload short videos. It may also be considered a sort of polling place for the popularity of video content. I went to YouTube’s international site, selected US English as the language, and did a series of searches for various international broadcasters.

My search for “CNN” yielded about 774,000 results, far more than for any other broadcaster. (This and the following results are all as of early in the morning on December 18, 2011.). But “CCTV News” gave a quite respectable figure of 144,000. To my surprise, it topped the results for “Al Jazeera English,” which came to 91,500.

By contrast, “NHK World” turned up just 3,790 results. And this in spite of the fact that NHK World had been in the global eye more than ever before over the preceding nine months as a result of the calamitous Tōhoku disasters.

Even if NHK has the financial means to let NHK World continue operating as is, it will likely remain insipid and unassuming, a sheep-like presence. With a sigh, we must forget our high hopes that Japan's English TV broadcasting might be able to boost the nation's visibility on the world scene.

(December 20, 2011)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

Taniguchi Tomohiko NHK World CNN CCTV News BBC Al Jazeera YouTube Al Jazeera English