Japan TV Sector Slowly Recovering

Johanna Goodman

Disaster bolsters reputation of NHK, but local stations wary of returning to regular programming too soon.

The enormous earthquake that occurred off Japan’s northeast coast on the afternoon of March 11 has affected nearly every facet of life in the country, including the TV business.

Public broadcaster NHK, officially known in English as Japan Broadcasting Corp., has bolstered its reputation as the most reliable source of news at a time of national crisis. Meanwhile, the commercial stations have suffered from the mass withdrawal of advertising by sponsors who don’t want their products to be associated with the images of death and misery that have been filling screens. Even most ads on trains and in stations have been taken down.

The first five days saw every TV station broadcast nothing but 24-hour coverage of the mass devastation caused by the tsunami and the unfolding nuclear drama at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. 

The commercial stations began to reintroduce some regular programming starting around March 16, though there was criticism of a variety show that included presenters doing a humorous segment in a convenience store full of food while wide areas of the country still faced shortages of foodstuffs. TV Tokyo, the smallest of the main broadcasters, began airing regular programs first.

“The scheduling, programming and marketing guys are half-dead trying to rearrange programs and commercial slots all at once,” one major network source says.

NHK began reintroducing some regular programming — its historical and morning dramas — on March 19. Meanwhile, NHK World, the public broadcaster’s multilingual news service, has boosted its standing, particularly among foreign residents of Japan, through its rolling coverage of the disasters.

The network — which was previously available only outside Japan — has been expanding its domestic delivery on cable TV since the crises began to unfold and is now available in English on 114 local cable providers.

“Because of the earthquake it happened faster, but actually we had been planning to expand our English offerings from April anyway,” NHK spokeswoman Marina Iwamura says. “We also collaborated with Ustream and Nico Nico Nama Hosou to stream content live.”

TV Asahi has been running a charity appeal named for its popular Doraemon cartoon, to which it donated ¥600 million ($6.45 million) for various organizations involved in relief work.