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Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Japan's TV news in a world of its own

NHK's deadpan news style has served it well


Watch a newscast produced in United States or Europe, and you'll see a fast-paced program consisting of lots of short segments augmented by a slew of computer-generated graphics.

News photo
A typical NHK news show. The nation's broadcaster prefers fewer, longer stories during its news segments.

Presidents, criminals, athletes and showbiz celebrities will be featured, as will bits of analysis and a story or two on trends or lifestyle.

But switch on Japan's top newscast, NHK's "News 7," and you'll be treated to something quite different.

The stories will be fewer in number and decidedly longer. So too will the video scenes, even though they may contain nothing but a single gray office building.

There will be no celebrities. Instead, you'll largely see one government official after another, usually making scheduled announcements on policy.

Often, instead of animated graphics, the details of a story are explained by a journalist standing behind a lectern and using a pointer to refer to a collection charts and maps.

At the same time, News 7 will offer no analyses or interviews with consumers, tax payers and other "real people" who could be affected by the news developments of the day.

Even so, the newscast will invariably end with a seasonal-cultural story. Last week, for instance, after such hard-hitting stories as the Iraq crisis and financial wrongdoing on the domestic front, viewers were told about a 100-year-old sweeping plum tree in Miyazaki Prefecture that began to blossom two weeks earlier than usual.

So make no mistake, in this fast-paced multimedia world, Japanese TV news, NHK in particular, is in a league of its own. There is something rather quaint and old fashioned in this presentation to the news.

When I asked a senior producer at NHK why the public broadcaster's newscasts are markedly slower-paced that overseas news programs, he reckoned that history was the main factor.

"In Japan, television news developed out of a film or newsreel tradition. Many of the first TV news crews had been working in the film industry. In the United States and other countries, however, it evolved from radio news," he said.

Radio newscasts, it should be explained, have tended to be shorter and snappier than TV news as they are easier and faster to edit.

Ironically, though, Japanese TV news broadcasts to this day often appear to be little more than radio newscasts with video running.

I recall that the entire visual element of one NHK story on a proposed heliport to serve the U.S. military forces in Okinawa was a single continuous shot of airplanes -- not helicopters -- taxiing along the runway at a U.S. military base.

In other countries, TV journalists strive to tightly tie their scripts to their images. That's a concept rarely if ever reflected in Japanese TV news.

The visual element seems to be a distant second in importance to the words, which may explain the obsession among Japan's photojournalists with the outsides of buildings.

In a story about, let's say, a financial scandal, the video typically consists of a prolonged shot or two of the outside of the bank or loan company where the alleged wrongdoing took place. Usually the camera operators add a bit of flourish by panning up and down and from side to side of the building, along with zooming in or out.

Recently, when NHK reported on the emperor recovering from treatment for prostate cancer, most of the video showed the outside of the hospital building where he was treated. None of the visual elements dealt with the emperor's successful recovery.

These examples illustrate the tendency not to use stock video -- video related to the story that was shot earlier and drawn from a library. For the financial scandal, for instance, the stock shots might show some of the figures implicated in the scandal, customers doing business at the accused business, or its employees at work at their desks.

Stock video, though a standard element in newscasts overseas, is much more rarely seen in Japanese newscasts.

A freelance TV editor told me the reason has to do with the perceived immediacy of the story.

Many Japanese TV producers believe that archival video makes the story look "old," she explained.

"The crew will want to use the video they shoot that day, rather than having to get video out of an archive. The viewers also expect to see pictures shot that day. So usually the archives are used only when there isn't any video shot that very day available."

She added that video tape libraries at TV stations aren't very organized in the first place, thus using them can be a time-consuming hassle.

Yet none of the technical deficiencies mean that the content of NHK's news is lacking in quality.

According to political science professor Ellis S. Kraus, NHK's stories tend to be more in-depth and objective than those of the U.S. networks.

In his book, "Broadcasting Politics in Japan; NHK and Television News," published in 2000, Kraus argues that NHK played an instrumental role in the establishment of a stable democracy in Japan through its neutral yet detailed news coverage.

That role, of course, was accomplished long ago. Now NHK and the commercial broadcasters need to ponder their roles the 21st century.

It will be interesting to see whether they can maintain their relatively low-tech but extensive news coverage in an age of shortened attention spans and increasing focus on images rather than words.



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