TOKYO — Japanese TV — with five commercial networks, pubcaster NHK and dozens of cable and satellite channels — broadcasts a huge amount
of original programming, but historically exported little of it beyond toons.
Overseas interest still centers on Japanese anime, but according to the National Assn. of Commercial Broadcasters in Japan (NAB), the five nets now sell nearly 1,500 programs (including drama, sports, variety shows and docus) to foreign buyers annually.
In 2006, overseas sales totaled an estimated $86.2 million, compared with $75.8 million the year before. Asia was the biggest market, accounting for 60.3% of all sales, followed by North America (18.3%) and Europe (16.9%).
With more windows opening in digital formats, from mobile devices to the Internet, marketing opportunities are growing. At the same time, says Tokyo Broadcasting System foreign program sales chief Mac Sugiyama, there is more jostling among partners for rights.
“For example, if animation production companies do not have a strong international sales team,” Sugiyama says, “they often can’t obtain (overseas sales) rights to their shows.”
Instead, bigger partners, such as a major publisher or net, will end up selling the toon abroad, while dividing the various territories among themselves. “It’s a case-by-case thing as to who will get what,” Sugiyama explains.
At the same time, demand is rising for not only completed shows but footage and formats.
“We get a lot of requests from outside Japan for funny footage from variety shows,” he says.
One longtime customer is “Sushi TV,” a U.K. show that sources wacky clips from Japan.
A bigger business is formats, something of a TBS specialty, beginning with an amateur video corner on a TBS variety show that morphed into “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” now in its 17th season on ABC.
Altogether, TBS has sold several dozen formats in nearly 200 country versions since the 1980s, though other nets have also been successful formats sellers, most famously Fuji TV with the Food Network hit “Iron Chef.” Japanese TV generates “many new ideas” for shows, claims Sugiyama, but has long had to battle the perception that “Japanese production quality is lower than in the West.”
Spectacularly shattering that stereotype is “Sasuke,” an elaborately produced obstacle-course show that has become a national institution since TBS launched it in 1997. (It’s now broadcast in the U.S. on G4 in a repackaged version titled “Ninja Warrior.”
Despite success stories like this, the cultural information flow between Japan and the United States, says Sugiyama, runs 100-to-1 in favor of the U.S.
“We need to do a better job of translating our ideas so the rest of the world can understand them,” he says.
1. Dondo Bare (NHK)
2. Utaban (TBS)
3. Ikinari! Ogon Densetsu (TV Asahi)