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Sunday, Feb. 15, 2009

MEDIA MIX

The recession will lead to a downturn in media quality


Every day there is more gloomy news about a major manufacturer or retailer or service company cutting jobs — and not just a few dozen here or there, but thousands, tens of thousands. No one gets out alive, except self-made billionaires and McDonald's, which is doing quite well, apparently. People will always need hamburgers.

There are also a lot of magazine articles about the job situation. Aera recently ran a timely three-part series on employment, surveying dozens of individuals in non-blue-collar occupations about their job satisfaction. From the articles, I learned: Job satisfaction was lowest in the retail, tourism and delivery industries; salaries have not changed substantially over the past 10 years; and women on average make about 65 percent of what a man makes for equivalent work. Aera concluded that, overall, job satisfaction is not directly tied to salary. If anything, the articles implied, it has more to do with a sense of "achievement" combined with the belief that one's work is appreciated by colleagues and superiors. Tell that to someone without a job.

It was comprehensive, but there was one industry conspicuously missing from the results. No employees of major broadcasters or publishers were surveyed. The closest thing I found was the mention of a 27-year-old female "secretary" at the entertainment company Shochiku who makes ¥3.6 million a year.

That means Aera did not include itself and its ilk in its own survey, and I'll assume it wasn't an oversight. As an amorphous entity rather than a collection of different companies and concerns, the media tends to place itself outside the realm of the general public so that it can claim an objective viewpoint. Some will even say the media places itself "above" the general public; that those in broadcasting and publishing consider themselves elites. Part of this feeling has to do with the glamour attached to jobs that potentially touch on celebrity and influence, but in any case, if you ask students where they want to work after graduating, media conglomerates will be one of the most common replies, along with the national government.

The general public also believes that people in the media are better paid, and according to the business magazine Toyo Keizai, they are. The Jan. 31 issue featured a special report on how the recession is affecting Japan's media companies, and it turns out that average salaries at the publishing/broadcasting conglomerates range from ¥12 million to ¥15 million a year.

Major media companies have yet to carry out the kinds of layoffs mentioned in the first paragraph, but it's only a matter of time before they do. The numbers in the article show that all are in serious financial trouble. If they've gotten this far without cutting staff or salaries (substantially, at least), then it's because they've saved money on other things.

Last fall, just before the new season of television started, TV Asahi found itself with a lot of unsold commercial time for its nationwide network broadcasts, and after a dedicated push to find new sponsors succeeded in selling only one additional minute of advertising, it started offering "bargains." The network ended up charging the same fee for a 30-second national spot that Fuji TV was charging for a 30-second local spot (i.e., Tokyo only). Fuji, the biggest commercial network in Japan, was not pleased, since that meant it too would have to reduce fees for its network shows in order to compete.

Everyone is operating in the red now, and the effect on programming is already being seen. But don't assume that means networks and stations are rethinking content in terms of what will attract more viewers. The growing proliferation of quiz shows featuring the same hundred comedians is not a response to viewer demand, according to Toyo. Quiz shows are notoriously inexpensive to produce, since the same studio set can be used week after week and those comedians work for peanuts.

This same thinking is behind TBS's decision to cancel its long-running nightly news show, "News 23," and replace it with a new two-hour program in the spring. News shows are relatively cheap, not only because they use the same set but because they're usually done live, thus eliminating postproduction costs. The new news program starts at 6 p.m. and extends into prime-time. According to Toyo, this move should not be interpreted as greater dedication to news. It's just a means of saving money. Using this logic, Nihon TV is adding more mindless variety shows to its prime time lineup, all of which will be broadcast live.

The upshot is that commercial TV programming, as bad as it is now, will probably get worse as the red ink rises — many stations still don't have enough money to fully switch over to digital, which they are required to do by July 2011. It seems unlikely that any of these schemes will actually lead to higher ratings and more ad sales, so we can expect bigger salary cuts and then layoffs. Top executives have already agreed to minimal reductions, and, in any case, with pay already above the norm of other industries, they have more room to work with. In addition, some stations could be supported by their relatively solvent publishing connections — TV Asahi by Asahi Shimbun, TV Tokyo by Nihon Keizai Shimbun. But newspapers aren't doing great, either.

How will all this affect the way TV looks at the economic downturn? The media hasn't ignored the recession and its debilitating effects, but the way they have been treated, especially on television, skews more toward drama than enlightenment, with pity trumping anger as the operative emotional mode. This feeling is apparent in the news coverage, but also in the way TV has always presented the poor as entertainment for the rest of us. The thing is, the rest of us are turning into the poor, if we haven't already. Soon, the only things left will be NHK, the government and McDonald's.



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