Mount Fuji

NHK — the way it should be 


(This article, which first appeared in the Japan Times of June 25, 2005, is
reproduced here in Japan Perspectives by kind permission of the author.)

This year has not been kind to national broadcaster NHK, as a series of scandals have caused hundreds of thousands of households to withhold their service payments, from which NHK draws 97 percent of its income.

Fortunately, I can help.

Now, the only show I ever watch on NHK is the 7 o'clock evening news, so that is where I must aim most of my suggestions. Yet I feel confident that the entire company will benefit from the modest measures below. The funny thing is that under my plan NHK need not alter the way it operates . . . so much. It only has to apply a few subtle twists.

First, have you ever noticed NHK is fond of dropping in program notes as news items? Like, "Hey folks! Here's the just-announced lineup for this year's Kohaku Song Fest!" Or, "The leading actors for our next historical drama are as follows!"

NHK does this with such happy fervor that it must be puzzled when news shows on other networks fail to cover NHK programming. Or more so when such shows even fail to hype their own programs.

Yet, no matter. I think NHK should do MORE of this. The trick is not to stop with schedule highlights, but to announce ALL shows as news. For example, here is how to plug one of NHK's pervasive nature programs . . .

The announcer breaks from a story on some terrible disaster, faces a different camera and segues into: "Next . . . Butterflies copulate in midair. It's true. Scientists have suspected this for years, but now have pictures to prove it. Tune in to NHK at 8 o'clock tonight for close-up coverage of 'Butterflies — A Lot Freer Than You Ever Imagined.' "

Now that, I believe, would get viewers' attention.

Next, NHK — and other networks — will sometimes air darkened interviews with news sources wishing to remain anonymous. The voices of these sources are then electronically distorted, although I have heard rumors that NHK is blessed to have one guy who speaks like a frog naturally, and they use him for dubbing instead.

If so, this man's talent is going to waste. For I think all NHK announcers should murmur like frogs. It would give news programs a secretive flair and make viewers hang on every word, as if they were having the news gossiped to them. And gossip, as we know, is irresistible. Pair this with program notes, and WOW!

Next, most viewers must notice that virtually all of NHK's 7 o'clock news announcers and reporters are male. Oops. Check that. I forgot the pretty-and-prim weather girls. Which leads to this idea . . .

Why not switch things around? Make the announcers and reporters female, and let's have guys do the weather. If that somehow seems unnatural, we could put the men in skirts and lipstick. The idea, you see, is to have people watch, and I bet that would do it.

At my house we almost never push that bilingual button that cuts in with an English override of the news. Yet my next idea would make use of that.

Ever see an electronic keyboard with different rhythm selections? Set the dial and — presto! — you can have whatever rhythm you want: rock, euro-beat, country-western, you name it.

So why not apply this to the news? Press the button once, and the announcer raps the headlines. Press it twice, and he's twanging like Willie Nelson. Again and he wails the blues. C'mon, this is Japan, the Mecca of electronic innovation. I am sure Sony or Matsushita could figure this out. Let's have viewers choose how they want their news delivered.

One trouble with NHK news is there is not much to it. Basically this is a boon, for no matter what recent statistics say about rising violence, Japan remains a relatively safe nation, and the fewer reports about stabbings, kidnappings and body-packed suitcases the better.

Yet NHK could certainly fill its prime news hour with items more newsworthy than, say, the results of NHK surveys. Or whether or not stumblebum sumo nerd Takamisakari won his match today. After all, it's a big world with a fair amount of activity.

Yet perhaps the recent scandals are a step in the right direction. I mean, if you cannot find enough news to report, the least you can do is to go out and make some.

In this case, NHK should be commended. Unfortunately financial scandals are not the most exciting fare, so I suggest that next time they aim for something racier. A slugfest between board directors might be good. Or maybe some sexy affair between announcers and weather girls. Or how about a sexy affair that ends in a slugfest? I'd tune in. Wouldn't you?

The reason for all these suggestions is to make people so eager to watch that they will readily pay their service charges. Yet I have another money-making idea that might be more effective than sending NHK solicitors to knock on doors.

Almost every Japanese train station of decent size has someone strumming a guitar late at night, hoping passersby will pitch him coins. Let's try the same approach with broadcasting.

Put young announcers at the station and have them stand on boxes and shout out the day's happenings. If they're colorful — and the news is good — I feel certain the throngs of commuters will kick in a little yen. Of course, if the news is bad, I would hate to be the messenger.

Perhaps what NHK needs most is a snazzier acronym. And that means a whole new name. "Nippon Hoso Kyokai" is not very grabbing.

So I suggest "Broadcast Station — JAPAN!"

So what if that makes NHK's Broadcast Satellite acronym a bit repetitive? Sometimes the point just comes across better when you lay it on thick. My motto in a nutshell.

Editor's note: Sincere thanks to the author for his kind permission to republish the above article, which first appeared in his regular Japan Times column "When East Marries West".