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Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010

MEDIA MIX

A relaxed approach makes news understandable for young and old


Two weeks ago, NHK announced that its popular half-hour series, "Shukan Kodomo no News" ("Weekly News for Children"), will be ending on Dec. 19. According to an article in the Sankei Shimbun, an executive at the public broadcaster explained the cancellation by saying that the show, which was launched in 1994 and endeavors to explain the week's most topical news stories in a way that elementary school children can understand, was no longer watched by kids. Over the years, the audience for the show has "overwhelmingly" become adults; seniors, in fact.

This demographic shift is partly due to scheduling. For years, "Kodomo no News" was broadcast on Saturday evenings, but some time ago it was switched to Sunday mornings, where it has had to compete with the superhero adventure series "Kamen Rider." Kids who may have been watching the show when it was on Saturday apparently didn't stay with it after the move, leaving only old folks, who presumably have a hard time understanding NHK's standard news programs.

But it isn't just the elderly who require a simpler approach to the news. Announcer Akira Ikegami, who was the original host of "Kodomo no News" and stayed with it for 10 years, is currently one of the most in-demand personalities on television. In the third week of November, two programs he hosted were in the Top 10 in terms of ratings: a two-hour Fuji TV special entitled "Oshiete Mr. News: Ikegami Akira no so nan'da Nippon" ("Explain to Me, Mr. News: Akira Ikegami's 'So That's It' Japan"), and the regular Friday night installment of his TV Asahi series "So datta no ka! Ikegami Akira no Manaberu News" ("Now I Understand! Akira Ikegami's Learning News"). If the two titles sound similar, that's because all the shows Ikegami does — and he's hosted programs for all the commercial networks — follow the exact same pattern as "Kodomo no News." Current news stories are explained in language that even a celebrity can understand.

Now Ikegami usually explains to a panel of TV personalities, and while one could make a case that most comedians are paid to look dumb, Ikegami's popularity would seem to indicate that the majority of TV viewers suffer from comprehension deficiency as well; which says more about the quality of news presentation than it does about the average person's intelligence. At any rate, it shows that the public is interested in the news.

Ikegami himself has explained his sudden popularity by pointing out, at least when it comes to newspapers, that editors often have to forego explaining certain terms in detail for the sake of saving space. It follows that broadcast news editors face the same problem in terms of time.

Critics have been discussing for years how the Internet and other new media have debased the language — any language — and undermined people's ability to process more traditional forms of information. Younger Japanese people may have less facility with Chinese characters than their parents do because they have fewer opportunities to write those characters by hand. Reading them in newspapers becomes more of a chore.

Broadcast media should be easier, but the diction used for news reports is often closer to written Japanese, and certain vocabulary may go over the head of the average viewer. But another reason why some people may have trouble understanding TV news is the stiff presentation style, especially on NHK, where everything is scripted to within an inch of its life.

Like most large businesses in Japan, NHK hires its full-time employees straight out of university with no job experience. A select few are cultivated as announcers, while some others are taught how to be reporters. A reporter's job is to gather information and the announcer's is to present that information, but because everyone learns his or her craft under the strict gaze of NHK, there's a uniform blandness to both the writing and the presentation that denies the resulting "news" its full potential to make an impression. The upshot is reporters reading their copy verbatim on the air, which makes it look as if they don't know their topics well enough to speak extemporaneously about them. NHK's corporate culture doesn't tolerate surprises.

Ikegami, who was born in 1950, was an exception to this rule. He was a reporter, but the structure of "Kodomo no News" obligated him to take on the attributes of an announcer. The show has two emcees, a man and a woman who act as father and mother. They have three "children" played by professional kid actors, who ask them questions about the news. Ikegami and all the "fathers" who came after him on the show needed to understand the news fully in order to explain it naturally.

In 2005, Ikegami went freelance, something many NHK announcers eventually do. Though NHK employees have more prestige than other media people in Japan, the public broadcaster famously doesn't pay as well, and once they reach their mid-50s they are often transferred to an NHK subsidiary. If the person is an announcer with a name brand, he can quit and easily find lucrative work. There is a sizable subset of veteran announcers working in commercial TV who are famous for their status as being "ex-NHK."

The first big job Ikegami got was on the Nihon TV variety show "The Class I Want to Take the Most," which is structured like a classroom with guest "instructors" teaching the featured celebrities distinct subjects. Ikegami was brought in to cover current events, and his reputation grew. Now everyone wants to hire him. He's even appeared back on NHK.

Ikegami's methodology — neutral, relaxed, thorough — has had an impact. Reporters with a more personable style are being brought out front to present their stories on conventional news shows, and even announcers are taking a little more time to explain things. NHK stubbornly sticks to its fusty style, but it knows a good thing when it owns it. "Kodomo no News" will morph into a new program called "News Fukayomi" ("News Deep Reading") offering explanations "for the whole family." News isn't just for kids any more.

Phillip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com


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