TOKYO: New Japanese media reforms could throw a lifebelt to struggling regional broadcasters. The relaxation of ownership rules will allow major commercial television networks to merge operations with up to 10 local stations across the country.

The deregulation proposed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications is expected to begin next year.

Until now, rules have prevented such integration across Japan's regional boundaries as a means of protecting broadcast plurality and freedom of speech.

But increasing fragmentation of the media in and the move towards digital-only viewing by 2011 is putting financial pressure on broadcasters.

This has prompted fears that many of the smaller local TV companies will lack the financial buoyancy to stay afloat without help from bigger fish.

The reforms are designed, at least in theory, to help regional companies maintain their independence after the realignments. But some are nervous they will no longer be able to serve their communities.

The bigger networks, for their part, are worried that the regional broadcasters could become financial millstones around their necks.

Data sourced from Asahi Shimbun Online; additional content by WARC staff