Panel calls for slim NHK

Viewer objections may block recommendation

A panel is calling for Japanese pubcaster NHK to consolidate its three satellite channels to one by 2011.

The panel’s recommendation to Communications Minister Heizo Takenaka may not become policy — viewer objections may block it — but it is supported by other influential sources, including the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has been pushing the pubcaster to stanch a flood of red ink.

Panel chairman Satoru Matsubara said that satellite was needed for areas not able to receive terrestrial signals, but that three satellite channels — two broadcasting in digital and one in the NHK-developed HiVision format — are two too many.

The NHK BS1 channel specializes in news and sports, BS2 in films and cultural programming. The HiVision service offers a mix of genres. By the end of 2005 the BS channels had nearly 15 million subs, while the HiVision is free.

All Japanese TV households are required by law to sign a receiving contract with NHK, costing $133 annually for NHK’s terrestrial services or $228 for the terrestrial and satellite services. It is not possible to subscribe to satellite only.

In January NHK announced that it was cutting its budget for the second fiscal year, this time by $446 million to offset a steep fall off in receiving fee payments, linked to a rash of scandals involving the misappropriation of funds by NHK employees. In the most recent case, in April, a producer was dismissed for embezzling $152,000.

By the end of January, an estimated 13 million households were not paying NHK fees — nearly one-third of the total. As a result 2005 revenues fell $446 million short of target, necessitating this year’s budget cut, together with a 10% cut in staffers, or 1,200 jobs, over three years.

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