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Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011


NHK should lead, not follow, commercial stations

In the magazine Shukan Kinyobi, media critic Tomoyasu Tanimura analyzes the most recent New Year's television programming and concludes that "you don't have to be an expert" to understand that commercial stations are spending much less money than they used to. Some traditional New Year's specials, such as Fuji TV's "Kakushigei Taikai," where celebrities show off skills they aren't famous for, were dropped this year, presumably because they're expensive to produce. Instead, the airwaves were filled with four- or five-hour specials featuring the same cross-section of TV personalities reacting to footage of shocking accidents and cute animals that anyone can see on YouTube.

News photo
Paying for laughs: Well-loved comedian Tamori (right) on his NHK TV show "Buratamori,2 part of the network's strategy to lure younger viewers. NHK

Tanimura estimates that most of these guests received about ¥50,000 each for an appearance, which probably required a full day of shooting. If they had to provide their own wardrobe and makeup, it may mean that they lost money on the deal. In the past, this would have been an acceptable tradeoff, because they needed exposure in order to secure work that really paid: TV commercials. But the reason TV stations are cutting production budgets is that advertising is way down, meaning there are fewer commercials to show and, thus, fewer opportunities for these people to appear in them. So there's not much point for a TV personality to spend eight hours on a show that won't lead to anything lucrative, which may explain why the collection of same old faces was smaller than it usually is.

NHK's New Year's shows, Tanimura admits, "showed more care," but the public broadcaster is also hurting financially. It's estimated that when Japan's airwaves go fully digital in July, NHK will lose about 10 percent of its subscribers, equivalent to about ¥66 billion a year. The bulk of NHK's viewership is older people, who tend to watch only the terrestrial channels. Subscriptions are based on the number of TV sets, and if that number declines after July, NHK will have to make up for the revenue shortfall with more subscriptions for its satellite channels, which it is now promoting aggressively before it cuts one of them this spring and makes the remaining two high-definition. BS users, identified by the presence of BS antennas, are supposed to pay more.

What NHK really needs to do is attract younger viewers, but that seems difficult, what with the population declining in general and young people showing more interest in their cell phones than in television. So far, NHK's solution seems to be to compete not with new technologies but with other broadcasters, the result being that much of NHK's non-news programming has become almost indistinguishable from what you find on the commercial stations.

The logic is unmistakable but unpersuasive: If NHK wants to attract younger viewers, it has to use formats and personalities that have proven to be popular on commercial TV. Quiz shows and variety shows are based on the ability of guests to engage viewers, whether through humor, charisma or notoriety. NHK's quiz and variety shows may seem more sober in tone and the structure smoother (no commercial breaks), but the appeal is the same. Viewers are expected to tune in to watch certain TV personalities, and that means the same comedians, the same idols, and even the same freelance announcers they're used to seeing and hearing on commercial TV.

In this instance, "popular" is a relative concept. The dominance of quiz and variety shows on commercial TV is a function of production, not viewer demand. These programs are less expensive to make because they are talent-intensive, and talent is cheap. Hiring guests who are witty or topical is the whole point, and the only "competition" is for these personalities' time.

NHK may actually have a slight advantage in this regard: Though NHK notoriously pays less than commercial stations, its reach is wider and deeper. You can pick up NHK anywhere in Japan, which isn't always true of the other networks. Moreover, NHK still possesses a certain cachet of respectability.

In commercial TV, ratings determine advertising rates, so in theory NHK shouldn't be concerned with audience share. The goal is a rise in absolute viewership and, in turn, an increase in subscribers who actually pay. NHK has been griping for years that too many people who own TVs don't pay their fees, and one way to look at its change in programming is that it's a bid to give the people what they want, an attitude that could be considered realistic given NHK's haughty image. Until recently, you never saw Japan's most popular comedians on NHK. Now, even top funnyman Tamori has a regular show on NHK, "Buratamori," which is similar in style to his long-running late-night TV Asahi series, "Tamori Club," except that NHK's doesn't have any sex.

But NHK's adoption of commercial TV ideas seems to be following function as much as form. Not long ago, the broadcaster's public mindedness was so pure it didn't even name companies in its news reports. Now, NHK works with businesses, probably for the same reason that commercial stations do: to reduce production costs. Last week, it broadcast a 30-minute special on BS-1 about the Italian espresso maker Illy that was basically an infomercial for the company, which lends its name to a chain of coffee shops in Japan.

In a recent editorial, Asahi Shimbun, which has often played an adversarial role in relation to NHK, said that it has noticed less "self-restraint" on the part of the public broadcaster in covering the government, which must approve NHK's budget. Indeed, NHK seems less skittish about reporting Japan's warmongering past and current fiscal inaction on its news and documentary shows. It's conceivable that people will be more willing to pay their fees for such content, which makes the non-news strategy all the more perplexing. Who wants to pay for entertainment shows on NHK when they can get the same thing on other stations for free?

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.

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