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NHK at 90: Pubcaster Goes for New Gold With 8K Olympics Coverage

Innovation continues as audience, platforms evolve

In October 1964, Tokyo welcomed the world as it hosted the Summer Olympics. The event signaled Japan’s recovery from the devastation of World War II. To broadcast the proceedings, venerable pubcaster Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK) was there.

NHK’s coverage made history,” says author Robert Whiting. “The Opening Ceremony (pictured) was the first such Olympic event to be telecast live internationally. It was also the first to be telecast in color, which ignited a huge boom in sales of color televisions.”

This formed one reason for NHK’s icon status with the Japanese public.

Now in its 90th year, that star has faded slightly as changing viewer demographics and questions about neutrality pose challenges for the broadcaster that has always pushed the tech envelope.

In return for providing a mix of news, sports and cultural programming via terrestrial and satellite television channels and radio, NHK receives nearly its entire operating budget from mandatory viewer licenses, which cost between $14 and $23 per month.

After experiencing three straight annual declines, revenue hit an all-time record of approximately $5.4 billion for the 2014 fiscal year. But the mandatory license system has its detractors. In February, outspoken director Takeshi Kitano suggested on a variety program that televisions be sold with a “no NHK” option in order to avoid the fees.

As well, those license holders, as with Japan in general, are aging. “Many of those who are Internet savvy have learned to get their information from alternative sources,” says Koichi Nakano, a political science professor at Tokyo’s Sophia U.
“NHK is increasingly turning into a news source that primarily caters to the elderly population.”

NHK has made some changes. For the 2015 fiscal year, president Katsuto Momii pushed for the development of simultaneous transmission of programs on the Internet and television.

The pubcaster is also seeking to broaden its reach internationally. Some programs broadcast in English on NHK World, which reaches more than 140 countries, are now available online on a video-on-demand basis.

What NHK has not done is ease recent concerns over whether it is merely a mouthpiece of the government, which appoints its board. Last year, Momii ruffled feathers with several inflammatory comments, including a claim that all nations at war use “comfort women” and that NHK’s programming should follow the Japanese government line.

There is no doubt, however, that NHK has consistently served the public in times of crisis. No other channel was more prominent in providing coverage during the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, and as severe flooding unfolded in Ibaraki and Tochigi prefectures in September.

This reliability has been augmented by the continual pursuit of the latest in broadcasting technology. Peter Symes, the director of standards and engineering at the Society of Motion Picture & Television Engineers, points to NHK’s development in HDTV as its “biggest milestone.”

“It had somewhat noisy pictures, but it was a working system,” says Symes of NHK’s exhibit at the SMPTE conference in San Francisco in 1981, “and none of us had seen anything like that before.”

Similar surprises could be in store as the public broadcaster plans to unleash 8K video, which boasts 16 times the number of pixels as conventional high-definition displays.

The NHK booth at CEATEC, Japan’s trade show for consumer electronics and home appliances, provided an 85-inch 8K screen displaying video clips, including colorful festival floats and pop group AKB48, transmitted via satellite from the broadcaster’s headquarters in Tokyo.

“(To the viewer), it is a beautiful image even though it is on a big screen,” said Jun Asano, a representative from the NHK booth at the recent CEATEC. “It is a 2D image but it seems to give a 3D effect.”

NHK and the BBC conducted 8K trials during the 2012 Olympics in London. NHK expects experimental broadcasting to begin in Japan next year, well before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Whiting says all eyes will once again be on the capital — and NHK — for the Tokyo Games. “2020 won’t be as dramatic, but it will catch the world’s attention.”

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