In a farming area of Iwate Prefecture, a fee collector for Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) makes his lonely trek across snow-covered roads on his motorcycle. He hopes he won't face any problems at the next door he knocks on.
No such luck.
``There are many people who do not pay the viewer fees, aren't there?'' a woman asks the NHK collector. ``I feel deprived for having paid.''
Right there, she joins the growing list of people who refuse to pay their NHK fees. But instead of outrage over embezzlement scandals at the public broadcaster, more nonpayers these days are questioning the fairness of the fee system itself. Citizens, industry groups and academics are calling on NHK to change what they say is an inadequate system.
``Even people who paid out of the same consciousness as paying taxes have begun to change their way of thinking,'' the NHK fee collector says. ``They learn about the rapid increase in nonpayers, even people close to them, through conversations at the workplace and in their neighborhoods.''
The boycott in fees started last year after a series of scandals surfaced over inappropriate use of funds by NHK employees. At the end of January, about 400,000 households were refusing to pay.
The Broadcast Law requires owners of TV sets at home and the workplace to sign viewer contracts with NHK as soon as the sets are installed. However, the law has no penalties for those who do not sign or those who refuse to pay the viewer fees.
According to NHK officials, the percentage of households that signed contracts has been declining since the 82.5-percent figure of fiscal 1995. In fiscal 2003, the figure was 81.3 percent, meaning that one in five households has not entered into a contract with NHK. The percentage for companies was 77 percent.
Also in fiscal 2003, about 4 percent of households that had signed contracts did not pay the fees.
The surge in nonpayments has shed light on what many say is the unfairness-even absurdity-of the fee-payment system.
A national group of 36 companies that lease out prepaid card-style TV sets to hospitals and other facilities recently said it has frozen payments of NHK fees because of problems with the system.
According to a group spokesman, contracts are required for every hospital room that has a TV set installed. The companies pay for the viewer fees. However, if patients bring in a TV from home, they are not required to sign a new viewer contract with NHK.
Group officials say it is unfair to ask only those companies that install the prepaid card-style TV sets to pay the fees.
Takaaki Hattori, a professor of media law at Rikkyo University, said the viewer fees are necessary, but the public broadcaster should change its direction.
``There are no signs that the accelerated increase in the number of individuals refusing to pay viewer fees will stop,'' Hattori says. ``There is a need for public broadcasting, and there is no alternative but to maintain the system of viewer fees.''
He says pay TV would be available only for wealthy households, and that turning the fees into a tax would be undesirable because the central government would become involved.
``Rather than expand operations with an aim toward increasing supplementary income, NHK will have to review its future course, including the distance it maintains from the political establishment, as it moves toward a streamlining path that would include a reduction in the number of channels it operates,'' Hattori says.
The separation of broadcaster and state is also what a citizens group is calling for.
`Only those who want to watch NHK should pay.' YOSHIHIKO MURAKI Media producer
The group, headed by Satoshi Daigo, a finance professor at the University of Tokyo, says it will not resume paying viewer fees until NHK has responded to its requests. The main demand is for NHK to clearly include in its charter of ethics a provision prohibiting any explanations to politicians about programming before a broadcast.
Even before last year's scandals, there had been some discussion about the future of NHK's viewer fee system. The government's three-year plan on regulatory reform compiled in 2001 included a proposal for talks on scrambling NHK's satellite digital broadcasting format to enable only households that pay a special fee to watch.
Other points about NHK were raised in previous debates on administrative reform.
Some officials questioned whether the system of requiring TV owners to sign viewer contracts respected the will of the public.
Another issue was whether forcing NHK fees on viewers who only want to watch commercial networks was a way of applying pressure on commercial networks that provide similar services to NHK's.
A third point was how to alleviate the unfairness of some households paying the NHK fees while others can refuse without facing penalties.
NHK has repeatedly argued that it is opposed to scrambling any of its channels. However, if the boycott on viewer fees continues, NHK may be forced to consider that option.
Another option would be imposing penalties against those individuals who refuse to pay their fees.
In Britain, individuals who do not pay the annual fee of 121 pounds (about 24,000 yen) for public broadcaster BBC face a maximum fine of 1,000 pounds or even imprisonment. In 2003, 20 individuals were imprisoned.
But Yoshihiko Muraki, a media producer, says NHK should take the opposite route.
``The viewer fee system should be changed to a voluntary one,'' Muraki says. ``Only those who want to watch NHK should pay.''
He said NHK has become so arrogant because of the mandatory viewer fees that it now ignores the needs of the public.
``The network should specialize in 24-hour news and educational programming and leave entertainment programs, such as popular dramas and the Red-and-White Song Festival, to commercial broadcasters.
``The time has come for a fundamental revision of the Broadcast Law.''(IHT/Asahi: February 24,2005)