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Sunday, Oct. 6, 2002

MEDIA MIX

When every channel is the same channel


Ever since the advent of that popular programming idea known as the "wide show" in the mid-1980s, so-called hard news and tabloid news have slowly merged into an alloy of informational reporting that defies easy categorization.

It's not just that the wide shows often have more pointed things to say about the political scandals that plague Nagata-cho; or that even stuffy old NHK occasionally stoops to covering show-biz celebrities. It's that there doesn't seem to be that much difference between the two any more.

This loss of distinction may have more to do with scale than with quality. You can watch news almost every hour of the day on the terrestrial broadcast stations, though it isn't always referred to as "news." A lot of prime-time variety shows have assumed newslike features -- anchors, reporters, commentators, up-to-the-minute topics -- even if they purport to be entertainment. The 6 o'clock news shows devote very little time to breaking stories any more. They mainly present long features about consumer goods and social trends that are directly tied in to product and service endorsements.

All the more reason to mourn the passing of "The Scoop." After 13 years of reporting subjects other TV news shows avoided, Asahi TV's weekly documentary program was finally canceled last summer, not because it stepped on the authorities' toes (though it did), but because it was too expensive to produce.

Fans deluged Asahi TV with letters and phone calls, pleading with them to somehow find a way to keep it going. In response the broadcaster has said that it will air bimonthly "Scoop" specials.

In the meantime, the network has decided to make "Scoop' s" excitable anchorman, Shuntaro Torigoe, the hub of its revamped "Super Morning" wide show (Monday to Friday, 8 a.m.). Though serious journalists like Torigoe (prior to "The Scoop" he was the editor of Sunday Mainichi) are sometimes tagged for wide-show duty, they're used as intellectual panda bears; token talking heads who lend a touch of seriousness to the tabloid antics.

Torigoe is a more active player on "Super Morning." The show's male-female announcing team of Noritsugu Watanabe and Yumi Tokugawa perform the lion's share of speaking chores, but Torigoe sets the tone.

So far, the tone has been slightly ridiculous. Torigoe is psyched for the job, but sometimes his excitement seems out of touch. Last week, during a report about a Buddhist monk who's been accused of stalking a woman via his cell phone, Torigoe interrupted to ask which sect the monk belonged to, "because that information is important." The reporter politely answered that he couldn't say, meaning he knows but it might cause problems if he divulged such information on TV. Obviously, Torigoe has yet to assimilate standard wide-show protocol.

But it's easy to get the impression that Asahi is also stumbling about. Among the commercial networks, Asahi has had the most trouble with its morning programming. "Super Morning" has been a revolving door of formats and personnel for the past decade. Though Torigoe's presence seems to indicate a sense of purpose, the rest of the program is willfully purposeless. The theme song changes every day and viewers are encouraged to "make requests," thus resulting in unintended embarrassments like the playing of "A Hard Day's Night" over footage of a midnight house-fire that claimed three lives.

The clearest indication of Asahi's desperation is a new segment called "Kikaku Survival," which also changes its theme every day. On Monday it was a candid look into the life of an average married couple, on Tuesday housewives who run their homes according to horoscopes and fortune telling. Again, viewers will be asked to vote on which segments they want to see made into regular features.

It's easy to understand Asahi's frustration, since all the wide shows cover the exact same tabloid news in the exact same way, often at the exact same time. According to an article that appeared recently in the Asahi Shimbun, evening news shows are experiencing the same problem "as they turn into wide shows." According to the article, the staff of Fuji's "Super News" was up in arms one night last month when the news director decided to lead with the surprise marriage of singer Hikaru Utada. He justified the decision by saying that a month earlier, when they didn't cover singer Namie Amuro's divorce, they lost a ratings point to the competition who did.

News programmers try everything, including hiring outside production companies to come up with ideas. Once they hit on something successful, everybody else copies it. (Right now, it's women who have psychological aversions to housework.)

As the news becomes homogenized, spreading like spilled milk all over the TV schedule, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish anything from anything else. One of the announcers on Asahi's noon wide show, "Scramble," is an actor whose main claim to fame is that he's married to the announcer who hosts TBS's very popular (nonwide) morning show. Does such a connection really make an impression on viewers?

If it does, then it's only because they make the connection at all. In what critic George W.S. Trow used to call "the context of no context," the main thing is the package. As for content, the Fuji TV director interviewed by Asahi Shimbun defines the news as "anything that people want to know." And what they don't want to know won't hurt them.



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