Photo/Illutration Japan Broadcasting Corp.'s broadcasting center in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

A panel of experts, appointed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, has proposed that Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) be allowed to slap a surcharge on subscription fees collected from households that own a TV set but refuse to subscribe to the public broadcaster.

The panel’s stated purpose is to eliminate a sense of unfairness being felt by paying viewers, as well as to do away with the current costly process of having NHK representatives visit nonsubscriber households door-to-door to explain the subscription system and urge them to pay.

NHK has been calling for a new system that requires all residents to report ownership (or nonownership) of TV sets, enabling the broadcaster to identify the names of nonsubscribers through local administrative entities and others.

But as was totally expected, this call was rejected by the experts’ panel for creating too many problems related to the protection of personal information.

As for the surcharge, many people would question its appropriateness.

We can appreciate the intent, which is to distribute the fee burden fairly among all viewers and use the revenue to improve program content.

However, NHK has a notorious track record of failing to keep an appropriate distance from politics--especially from the regime in power. And coupled with the fact that its reporting and programming policy has frequently aroused bitter controversy and mistrust, it is highly doubtful that NHK’s more draconian approach to subscription fee collection can be justified before the broadcaster cleans up its act.

Also, even if enforcing a penalty raises the payment rate, the gap that already exists between the public and NHK will further widen once people begin to feel that paying the subscription fees feels no different from paying taxes.

This may well erode the very foundation on which every public broadcaster stands, which is that its existence relies on the “support of everyone.”

According to a communications ministry survey, more than 30 percent of teenagers and young adults in their 20s never watch television in real time. The percentage of TV-owning households is also declining, and NHK’s competition with overseas video streaming services is growing fiercer every day.

NHK needs to re-examine the very reason of its existence--“What does NHK exist for?”--whenever it considers a new policy, such as how it intends to collect subscription fees.

In conjunction with the surcharge system, the experts’ panel has recommended that NHK’s surplus fund, which has now bloated to 128 billion yen ($1.22 billion), be transferred to a special account when it exceeds a certain amount, and be required to be allotted to reduce subscription fees.

NHK definitely needs to keep the surplus fund from bloating out of control and award TV viewers with refunds. In fact, it should have done so sooner.

However, the value of a public broadcaster is not determined by the amount of subscription fees it charges. Again, vital to any discussion is what role NHK should continue to play amid today’s drastically changing media environment, and how it should be managed as society continues to shrink in population.

In that sense, it was unfortunate that the panel, despite its stated commitment to “a comprehensive discussion on public broadcasting,” only managed to skim the surface.

NHK’s Board of Governors, which was advised by a third-party organ to disclose its minutes, has effectively ignored the advice for more than six months now.

Before discussing a surcharge on subscription fees, the board should apologize to viewers for its insincere attitude.

Rebuilding its system of governance is NHK’s most urgent task.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Dec. 2