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Sunday, Oct. 19, 2008

MEDIA MIX

Beat Takeshi helps turn news into farce


For the past week or so commercial networks have been launching their new fall shows, and the ones attracting the most attention are on TBS, which seems to be cornering the market on what it calls "nonfiction" programming. There are at least four new shows that have been promoted using this English term, which suggests to viewers that they lean toward a news show format: in-studio discussions about topical subjects interspersed with documentary-like reports.

One of these shows will be hosted by Hiroshi Kume, who changed Japanese news forever with TV Asahi's "News Station," which he anchored for two decades starting in 1985. Not a trained journalist but a seasoned showbiz emcee and radio announcer, Kume brought a brash everyman inquisitiveness to the staid and bland TV news format, which until he showed up was in the NHK mold: newsreaders relating the days events with occasional footage about the stories they were reading. This was and, to a certain extent, still is the model of "objective" news reporting, even if every commercial news show with the possible exception of TV Tokyo's "World Business Satellite" has gone the Kume route, meaning opinionated anchors, guest pundits and "special reports" that get to the heart of particular stories.

TBS's initial contribution to this livelier type of news reporting was "Broadcaster," which recently ended a weekly Saturday night run that lasted 17 years. The show aimed to provide an overview of the previous week's news, and though major issues were examined in depth, the program also directed the same close attention to human interest, sensational crimes and celebrity scandals. At the heart of the show were two regular capsule features: "7 Days," which grouped secondary news stories into rapid-fire briefs centered around a clever theme; and "Otosan no Tame no Wide Show Koza" (Wide Show Theater for Dads), a roundup of that week's most covered stories on the tabloid-style daytime wide shows. In addition, guests from the worlds of finance, arts, literature, academia and show business would comment on the news being presented.

Like "News Station," "Broadcaster" had its imitators, most notably Nihon TV's Sunday evening newsmagazine "Bankisha." But the demise of "Broadcaster" isn't total. TBS has merely retooled the format slightly and freshened the talent. Even the title of the new show that now occupies the same time slot reassures longtime "Broadcaster" fans that nothing much has changed: "Joho 7 Days Newscaster."

What makes it different is the regular appearance of Japan's reigning comedian and king-of-all-media Beat Takeshi. Though the show is hosted by the popular young staff announcer Shinichiro Azumi, Takeshi occupies a slightly higher position by dint of his notoriety, even if all he does is add off-the-cuff and often off-color commentary to the proceedings. By recruiting Takeshi, the producers have basically turned a news program into the kind of talk-variety show that dominates prime time, both on commercial TV and even NHK, and while the two genres have been slowly edging toward each other ever since Kume debuted "News Station," the incorporation of entertainment elements into news reporting has never been as blatant.

Despite Takeshi's quick wit and Azumi's verbal facility, the first two installments have shown that it's not an easy mix to achieve. For one thing, the show is broadcast live, and the nature of news is that it's in constant flux, which means Takeshi needs to be fully informed beforehand in order to be effective as a fellow gossip. On the first two shows, however, he was mostly reduced to asking questions about the stories. And during those segments where he was obviously following a script, he sounded stiff and uncomfortable.

He's probably too busy to follow the news anyway. Takeshi's obligations on the half-dozen TV shows he regularly hosts or appears on amount to nothing more than showing up. He admitted as much in the opening minutes of the "Newscaster" premiere after Azumi announced that the show will "invite Takeshi every week to comment on the news." Takeshi qualified this protocol by adding facetiously, "Some weeks I might not come if I happen to offend someone and they complain." Of course, that's exactly the type of thing viewers look forward to.

But there's a big difference between Hiroshi Kume being blackballed by the Liberal Democratic Party because of some crack he made about a politician and Takeshi offending certain sensibilities with his casual sexism and jokey candor. For years, Takeshi has hosted the political variety show "TV Tackle," where real politicians and pundits debate current events and the situation in Nagata-cho. Takeshi's quips leaven the proceedings with down-to- earth humor, but they don't add anything incisive to the conversations the way Kume's common-sense criticisms did. Though Takeshi is one of the sharpest minds in Japanese show business, he has never been inclined to use his wit in a way that makes a difference. This is true of Japanese comedy in general. There's very little, at least on TV, that can compare with the kind of social and political satire you see on American and European television.

Consequently, Takeshi's jokes on "Newscaster" seem beside the point. He's been given several segments to "edit," one of which is the heir to the wide-show feature on "Broadcaster." Takeshi invariably selects stories that feature clueless young women and/or sex, since that's his metier. In this regard, the show's choice of a weather reporter — a dim Kewpie doll in a mini dress — was obviously made with Takeshi in mind. "All the weather girls these days look like that," he commented approvingly. "Only on NHK and in North Korea do you see middle-aged women reporting the weather."



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