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Sunday, May 9, 2010

MEDIA MIX

TV Tokyo's soft approach toughens consumer savvy


Each of Japan's key commercial TV stations has distinctive traits, though in terms of programming these distinctions are probably insignificant to the average viewer, especially when you often have the boy band Arashi appearing on two or three different stations in the same evening.

The exception is TV Tokyo, which belongs to the smaller TVX network and is affiliated with the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's premiere financial daily. TV Tokyo has its share of dumb dramas and pointless variety shows but is recognizable for its focus on economic matters. Its nightly news show, World Business Satellite, is arguably Japan's best, even if the business focus necessarily narrows its news scope.

Other economics-oriented series on TV Tokyo include "Cambrian Palace," a business trends talk show with novelist Ryu Murakami; "The Rubicon Decision," which dramatizes notable business successes; and "Dawn of Gaia," a business-related documentary series. Many of the station's most enduring variety shows have money on the brain, too, like the antique assessment show "Nandemo Kanteidan" and the Tokyo neighborhood exploration series, "Admatic Paradise."

"Admatic," in fact, is a model for TV Tokyo's programming mind-set, since it is structured as a public relations tool, with the host sporting the title Manager of Publicity Planning. As informative as these shows can be, they are limited by their main function of sucking up to companies, which not only cooperate in their making but also support them in the form of advertising.

But then there's "Tokoton Hatena," which has occupied the Sunday 6:30 p.m. time slot for more than five years. The title translates as "thorough" followed by an expression of exclamation, and the concept is just as simple. Each week the show attempts to answer questions regarding "social issues" that affect everyone. These issues are deemed to be "difficult to solve," and the purpose of "Tokoton" is to provide "clues" so that individuals can make sense of these issues and address them on their own level.

The producers are not muckrakers, but because the show is sponsored by Tokyo Electric, they don't seem to worry about attracting and pleasing advertisers on a week-to-week basis, and can thus afford to be critical about segments of consumer culture that similarly conceived shows are squeamish about covering in detail.

If "Tokoton" is limited by anything it's the variety show format. The host is veteran samurai star Hideki Takahashi, whose role is to comment on the antics of the field reporters, the female Osaka-based comedy duo Kuwabata- Ohara. Regardless of what the show uncovers, the tone is always light, and sometimes even flippant. But flippancy has a way of conveying truths that may be hard to express in a more straightforward manner. One installment covered wakeari shohin, or products that, because of cosmetic flaws, have to be sold at lower prices. These products became quite popular as the recession took hold, and the show revealed, in a jokey way, how some companies take advantage of the "wakeari boom" by making damaged products on purpose.

"Tokoton" isn't out to uncover malfeasance. It shows consumers how commerce works so that they can be better consumers. A common theme is how to read ingredients on packaging. Several weeks ago, the topic was traditional junk food for kids, the kind that have been around since the end of the war and which haven't increased much in price. Parents are not under any illusion that these sugary snacks are healthy, but because they're "old-fashioned," they don't equate them with contemporary processed sweets. Actually, many contain artificial sweeteners and preservatives that weren't available 50 years ago, and the manufacturers interviewed were honest about why they use them, which is to keep costs down.

Makers of snacks are small fry, which makes them pretty easy targets, and for sure "Tokoton" rarely goes after the big boys, at least not by name. The problems of, say, nuclear energy are beyond its capabilities (the show is only 30 minutes), but they have tackled wasteful air conditioners and the inefficiency of component-oriented heating systems in Japanese housing, a problem that Tokyo Electric and other utilities have to take some of the blame for.

The show's real value is the way it questions, in its often humorous way, facets of consumer life that people take for granted. Do "eco bags" really make a difference or are they just another marketing gimmick? Is the fine print on packaging purposely small to confound older people? Why do landlords demand "gift money?" After the infamous poisoned frozen gyoza (dumpling) incident two years ago, they aired a show on how processed-food makers manage to sell their products so cheaply.

The show's structure keeps it real. Kuwabata-Ohara get away with sharp comments because they're funny. They can ask business people pointed questions since their abrasive image allows them to do so without seeming to be mean. Takahashi is given the role of a seasoned arbiter of quality back in the studio, and he isn't afraid to say that something tastes like crap or is overpriced. If he can't back up his opinions with facts, there's always an expert on hand to do that in simple language.

"Simple" is actually a better description of the show's intent than "thorough," thus placing it in that subgenre of variety programming influenced by NHK's "Kodomo News," which explains the week's headlines in a way that elementary school students can understand. The rumor surrounding the long-running popularity of "Kodomo News" is that it is mainly watched by adults, as indicated by the successful second-act career of its original host, Akira Ikegami, who now has his own regular news explanation show on TV Asahi. Unlike "Tokoton" or "Kodomo News," it is broadcast during prime time, which may signal that there's hope for commercial TV yet.



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