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Friday, March 26, 2004

End of 'News Station' run prompts mixture of disbelief, grief and relief


Staff writer

Friday will see the plug finally pulled on "News Station," the popular TV Asahi show that has made a virtue of breaking journalistic taboos during its 18-year run.

Anchored by Hiroshi Kume, the show debuted in 1985, allowing its presenters a hitherto unseen freedom of expression.

While newscasters had previously stayed poker-faced in an effort to convey their impartiality, their "News Station" counterparts were not averse to cracking jokes or even delivering sharp political asides.

"('News Station') has changed the form of news. In that sense, I think it has had great influence" on TV journalism, Shinzo Abe, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, told a recent news conference.

But Kume's casual reporting manner often caused friction with ruling-bloc lawmakers, who believed the anchor often sided unfairly with opposition parties.

Indeed, the program's political impartiality was seriously undermined in 1993, when Sadayoshi Tsubaki, then news bureau chief of TV Asahi, boasted that its anti-LDP coverage of the Lower House election that year helped effect the LDP's first fall from power since its 1955 founding.

The latest controversy came Nov. 4, when "News Station" aired a live 30-minute news conference by the Democratic Party of Japan, which took the opportunity to announce the lineup of its shadow Cabinet just before the Nov. 9 Lower House poll.

The LDP lodged a protest, prompting TV Asahi to reprimand seven executives.

"It is true that Kume has maintained an anti-LDP, antiauthority stance," said Tatsuo Inamasu, a professor at Hosei University who specializes in mass media culture.

"But he has made these comments not because he is very familiar with policy matters, but because he is familiar with the sentiments of the general public."

Inamasu said that, before "News Station," TV news programs were based on the noble ideal of public service.

"But after 'News Station,' news programs have become shows and commercial products," Inamasu said, noting this is why "News Station" was crafted to be so viewer-friendly.

It was an entertainment product aimed at satisfying viewers, not an intellectual work to enlighten the general public, he claimed.

Under the banner of "News that can be understood even by junior high school students," the program has frequently used illustrations, music, animation and even funny dolls meant to represent certain politicians, all of which augment Kume's mischievous delivery.

"I think (Kume) has successfully reported news in a very easy and interesting way for viewers to understand," DPJ President Naoto Kan said.

The style has proved popular. "News Station" has secured high audience ratings, logging an average 13.6 percent in the past five years, while its rival, NHK's "News 10," has posted an average 7.6 percent, according to Video Research Ltd., a ratings survey firm.

"News Station" has also proved very attractive for advertisement sponsors, industry sources say.

Any popular regular drama or variety show is usually aired on a weekly basis and ends in a three-month cycle.

Yet "News Station" was aired Monday through Friday, maintaining high audience ratings for more than 18 years.

The success of "News Station" sparked a news war among TV stations, which resulted in an increase in total TV news hours starting around late 1987, according to a report by Video Research.

Video Research said 4,338 minutes of news programs aired each week in 1980 in the Kanto region. The figure had surged to 7,747 minutes a week by 1987, as broadcasters rushed to hire popular newscasters and expand their evening and nighttime output.

Despite the achievements of "News Station." Kume's style is still contentious.

"In some cases, straight news and explanatory comments can be mixed up, which change (reported) facts into different things," said Abe of the LDP. "Viewers have to be careful about that point."

Kume meanwhile described himself as a TV "personality," not a journalist.

Kan of the DPJ also agreed that Kume's comments on News Station were sometimes based on his own subjective opinions. Yet it was Kume's views that gave the program a human touch and made it interesting for viewers, Kan said.

"News Station" will be replaced by another news show, "Hodo Station."



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The Japan Times

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