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Sunday, March 2, 2003

MEDIA MIX

In pursuit of 'reality,' TV sinks to new depths


Last week, a judge ruled in favor of NHK in the public broadcaster's libel suit against Kodansha. The publisher's monthly magazine Gendai ran an article in Oct. 2000 that said NHK persuaded fishermen in Indonesia to re-create a method for catching fish involving explosives for a news report. The court found that the magazine's assertion couldn't be proved and awarded NHK 4 million yen.

The kind of manipulation that Kodansha accused NHK of is called yarase, a word that tends to get thrown around a lot these days, and for good reason.

Japanese TV, especially commercial TV, has evolved into what can accurately be called "all reality, all the time." Entertainment programs and news programs overlap so much that it's difficult to tell where one starts and the other ends. But the reason for this overlap has more to do with economics than programming considerations.

Commercial broadcasters are continually being forced to rein in budgets. The average cost of a program that fills an hourlong time slot is about 10 million yen right now. The battle for audience share is fought mainly on the talent front, and if an expensive host is hired and celebrity guests are invited, these costs can take up as much as 70 percent of the budget.

So if anything has to be cut, it's production expenses. Producers either hire an outside production company to provide content at a fixed price, or they buy prepackaged content. In either case, the outside production company has to come up with the content itself, and as cheaply as possible.

This process encourages yarase. An article that appeared in Shukan Bunshun several weeks ago gave detailed examples of the practices independent production companies have developed to keep costs down and content flowing. Of course, Bunshun's word also has to be taken with a grain of salt, especially since the article contains not one named source.

But if one compares the examples given in the article to the stuff on screen, it's easy to believe. As one anonymous producer points out, the goal is to come up with the biggest sensation at the lowest cost. Another producer states that in order to fulfill this goal, "We will do anything, even ruin people's lives."

These companies are after the same things, namely illegal activities or behavior that is uncivil or immoral. Among the most common topics are shoplifting, illegal dumping, illicit sexual activities and domestic strife. The footage is then sold to networks for use in variety shows, information specials and even news programs.

As Mr. A, an independent producer, points out in the article, there are many variables and unknowns involved in documentary filmmaking, and considering the cost of sending out a crew for a day's work, it's risky not to go "prepared."

Shoplifting stories, which are extremely common, use hidden cameras to catch people stealing in supermarkets and department stores, but even when the camera records an actual theft, sometimes it's difficult to see, so the production company hires "criminals" to make it more obvious, but, of course, without telling the security people in the store. After they get the footage they want, they have methods of extracting their hirelings from the clutches of the law.

Another producer, Mr. B, corroborates Mr. A's assertions, but doesn't apologize for them, stating that "many viewers don't really understand yarase." He distinguishes between yarase, preparation (shikomi) and direction. When he shoots videos of teenage girls soliciting sex, he likes to have his subjects weep on camera. According to Mr. B, yarase would be "telling the girl to cry." If you give her onions to draw tears, that's "preparation." And if you tell her to imagine what her "dead grandmother in heaven would think" of her selling her body, that's "direction."

The demand for footage has given rise to a new set of workers called "researchers," who are hired by production companies to find subjects. It is the researcher's job to locate cheating wives, agoraphobics, stalking victims and the like, to go on screen and talk about or re-enact their stories. It is also their job to make sure the subjects don't change their minds before the documentary is aired. According to the Bunshun article, one female researcher believed she was required to cater to a psychologically unbalanced young man's sexual desires to ensure his cooperation.

The anonymity of the professionals quoted in the Bunshun article is mirrored by the anonymity of the subjects of the documentaries, whose faces and voices are usually masked (producers pay subjects, and they pay more to subjects who agree to appear without the masking). In effect, the "reality" of the material is made unreal by its presentation, thus leaving behind a residue of cynicism.

It's this cynicism that seems to be the real sales point. When it's presented as entertainment, as fodder for comments by comedians on variety shows, the material has a built-in phoniness that neutralizes any feeling the viewer may have that he's being fooled.

But the underlying message of these video documents is that civil society is breaking down, especially when they're used on legitimate news shows. A common practice right now is to have reporters directly confront people on the street with their misdemeanors, such as illegal parking and smoking on the street. The only explanation for this kind of "guerrilla reporting" is that it encourages a feeling of vicarious payback in the viewer.

Is that what they mean by "news you can use?"



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