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Sunday, Dec. 12, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Lord Shrimp gets deep-fried over New Year's special


While surfing for coverage of the most recent NHK scandal on commercial television, I naturally had my radar tuned for expressions of schadenfreude, especially on the wide shows, where commentators enjoy a little more freedom to be critical. But there hasn't been much gloating. Last Monday, the host of TV Asahi's "Super Morning" said, "Actually, TV Asahi isn't perfect, either."

All broadcasters have their share of scandals. As one commentator put it, the embezzlement-type improprieties that have been revealed at NHK since last July are "organizational" in nature, meaning that the perpetrators take advantage of operational practices that are easy to take advantage of.

The fraud for which NHK producer Katsumi Isono has been accused seems to be more serious than most because he was arrested on Dec. 4. According to media reports previous organizational misdemeanors within NHK were handled internally. Isono set up an outside company with a friend to carry out the fraud, and this company supposedly received scriptwriting fees from NHK, much of which was kicked back to Isono. The ease with which NHK allocates funds to outside contractors and their lack of oversight is what made the fraud easy to pull off.

Many television industry scandals involve the padding of expense accounts and the charging of fees for work that is never done, and according to an article in last week's Asahi Shimbun, only about half of the people caught at NHK over the past decade for embezzlement-type transgressions were actually fired. In many cases the wrongdoers were suspended for a time without pay.

When it comes down to money the line between impropriety and business-as-usual can be a blurry one. Isono said he had to spend a lot of money wining and dining talent agencies in order to secure top singers for his music programs. This is considered acceptable, but it sounds fishy. Why didn't Isono just pay for the talent he wanted? Why did he need to wine and dine anyone?

As a result of the scandals, 113,000 households have refused to pay their NHK viewer fees, amounting to a loss of about 1 billion yen, which is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the 680 billion yen that NHK has collected this year.

TBS's nightly news show ran a report on NHK fee collectors whose pay is largely commission-based and who are having problems with households that refuse to pay. The reason given for non-payment is that people say they don't trust NHK any more, but there has always been a subset of viewers who refused to pay simply because they don't want to pay, and it's easy to believe that a lot of viewers see the scandal as an excuse for getting out of paying their fair share, regardless of how they feel about the scandal.

According to the Broadcast Law, anyone who owns a television set "that can receive NHK broadcasts" is required to pay the fee, and for many years NHK signals were the only ones that could be received everywhere in Japan, so if you had a TV it was assumed you must be watching NHK. Collectors felt justified in badgering anyone with a TV antenna, and were even known to barge uninvited into homes to check for sets.

The public broadcaster no longer enjoys such exclusiveness, but the imperious attitude it developed when it did is still noticeable. NHK Chairman Katsuji Ebisawa has been tagged with a number of derisive nicknames for his reported overbearing demeanor, including Ebi-sama (Lord Shrimp) and Ebi Jong Il. Some media commentators thought his apology for the scandals was intended to make NHK look more like a victim than an offender.

The hubris can be seen on the programs, as well. Prior to a recent three-part series on the Roman Empire, the composer of the series' theme music appeared in a tie-in interview simply to say how honored he was to work for NHK.

This sort of thing can backfire, and not just in terms of inflaming viewer resentment. Concurrent with the latest scandal was the announcement of this year's lineup for NHK's annual New Year's Eve broadcast, "Kohaku Utagassen." An invitation to appear on the popular song contest has always been considered the highest honor any Japanese singer could receive. But since the early '90s, the number of artists who politely decline an invitation has been on the increase.

NHK polled viewers on whom they wanted to appear, and three of the pop acts that topped the list were Southern All Stars, Hikaru Utada and SMAP, all of whom turned down their invitations. For SAS the invitation and subsequent decline is more or less a formality, since the group has its own tradition of playing Yokohama Arena on New Year's Eve. And Utada hardly does television, anyway. But SMAP, who filled the honored closing slot on last year's "Kohaku," wasn't expected to turn down their invitation. The group said it was doing so because it didn't have a new song. The media, however, interpreted this as a slap in the face for NHK, and while some will assume they declined because of the scandals (a significant implication if true since NHK has been known to cancel invitations to singers who themselves are involved in scandals), it's just as likely that SMAP's production company, Johnny's Jimusho, sees itself as being above NHK.

Even more embarrassing is the news that Korean actor Bae Yong Joon has declined an invitation to appear on "Kohaku." NHK feels that Bae owes his phenomenal popularity in Japan to the public broadcaster, which has run his soap opera, "Winter Sonata," a number of times over the past two years. It doesn't seem to matter that Bae is not a singer. Getting him to just show up would be a huge coup for the broadcaster and could do much to mend its public image. The media has indicated that NHK believes it can still change his mind. Obviously, Ebisawa has some wining and dining to do.



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