50 Years of NHK Television

Asama-Sanso Incident

In an incident that stands out in 50 years of TV broadcasting in Japan, members of the United Red Army took a hostage and seized a mountain lodge near Karuizawa. The police responded by mounting an armed rescue operation; for the viewers, it was like watching a battle scene from a movie. TV stations had set up cameras to cover the events, but the intensifying battle made broadcasters consider suspending coverage. The situation was so tense that, in the end, coverage continued and was relayed for over 10 hours.

The potential of TV—and its danger

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News coverage lasting 10 hours 40 minutes
In the winter of 1972, five members of the United Red Army seized the Asama-Sanso mountain lodge near Karuizawa, taking the wife of the lodge-keeper hostage. The radicals were holed up from February 19, with the TV stations conducting intense daily coverage from in front of the lodge. The police began a rescue operation at 10:00 a.m. on February 28. The whole event was broadcast from 9:40 a.m. to 8:20 p.m., and the average audience share on NHK General TV was 50.8%. Between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., when the radicals were arrested and the hostage rescued, the share reached 66.5%. At 6:26 p.m., the combined audience share of NHK and commercial stations peaked at 89.7%. Almost the entire country was watching the same thing on TV.
Live relay of the Asama-Sanso Incident
Live relay of the Asama-Sanso Incident
The incident in fact coincided with U.S. President Richard Nixon's visit to China from February 21 through 27. There were also other important events taking place in Japan. Yet both NHK and the commercial TV stations continued live reports from Karuizawa for over 10 hours, breaking only for short news bulletins. This was what the viewers wanted to watch, but in a sense it was as if the stations, too, were being manipulated and controlled by the radicals behind the incident.

News as theater
The guiding principle of TV news is to report events that people are interested in. However, quality journalism also demands coverage of important subjects that do not necessarily interest most viewers.
In the Kim Hee Roh Incident of 1968, the hostage-taker demanded access to TV as a platform to state his beliefs. For Japan, this was an early taste of a person using the media to play out a form of social theater.
  The top medium
In the 20 or so years since its birth in Japan, TV had become the most popular medium and the fastest means of getting up-to-date news. Its popularity engendered a special responsibility: when incidents and accidents were being reported in real time, broadcasters had to exercise care not to overstep the thin line that separates news reporting from voyeurism.

Belief in images, the present and feelings
Hara Toshio, a former employee of Kyodo News, observed that TV inclines towards topics with a strong belief in "images, the present and feelings." As such, television is a faithful mirror of the curiosity and spirit of enquiry inherent in human nature. For news reporting, though, the challenge is always to maintain objectivity and rationality.

Sugarcoating danger
Among the wide range of topics and themes deserving coverage, television would not achieve even half of its journalistic mission if it focused only on what people found interesting.
Complex matters would end up being sugarcoated if the emphasis was always placed on finding ways to maximize the viewer's interest. In today's era of increasing real-time broadcasts and news flashes, combining immediate interest and perspectives with considered judgment is always of prime importance in TV journalism.

Need for balance
Journalism's principal role is to report current events as they are. At the same time, it is vital to maintain a historical perspective. Balance is essential. This has been a crucial guiding principle in 50 years of TV news coverage.

TV's changing role

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