Mip country of honor makes inroads in all genres

TOKYO – The global TV world is seeing more Japanese content — and not just the toons that have long been the country’s biggest smallscreen export.

“Sales of everything are exploding, from formats to original programs,” says Makito Sugiyama, head of program sales for Tokyo Broadcasting System.

Sellers can point to a long and growing list of overseas broadcasters who have reaped large rewards from Japanese programming, an achievement that helped inspire Mip to name Japan its country of honor this year.

Japan has already established itself as the second-biggest TV market in the world in terms of ad spend, with nearly ¥2 trillion ($19.2 billion) in 2007, or 28.5% of the worldwide total. The nation’s five commercial networks and pubcaster NHK still dominate this market, though cable, satellite and now Internet broadcasters are making inroads.

But in addition, the nets source nearly all content locally for their main terrestrial channels (though NHK acquires foreign programming in quantity, especially for its two broadcast satellite strands). The webs and NHK will be presenting programming at Mip in all genres, from dramas to reality shows.

TBS has long been a leader in program sales, starting with “Fun TV With Kato-chan and Ken-chan” — a 1980s variety show whose segment on funny vid clips submitted by viewers morphed in 1989 into “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” which has become ABC’s longest-running primetime entertainment show. TBS also is the distrib of “Takeshi’s Castle,” an iconic 1980s show that might be described as a free-spirited variant on “King of the Mountain,” played by grown-ups who never quite grew up. It has sold widely abroad for both rebroadcast and remaking.

These and other Japanese international successes, such as Fuji TV’s “Iron Chef” cooking competition show (which became a cult hit Stateside on Food Network and has sold to 15 territories worldwide), have broken down barriers against Japanese live-action programs, previously considered “too Japanese” — that is, too strange — for the sensibilities of Western viewers.

Now, however, the Japaneseness of a show can be a selling point, as TBS has discovered with its “Ninja Warrior” obstacle-race show, which launched in Japan in 1997 under the title “Sasuke.” A spinoff of the popular “Muscle Ranking” show, “Sasuke” attracted huge audiences for its three-hour specials, in which contestants tackled fiendishly difficult obstacle courses with a samurai-like determination — and disregard for pain.

TBS partner Comcast Entertainment has edited “Ninja Warrior” for broadcast on its G4 strand but kept the show’s Japanese flavor, even subtitling rather than dubbing the contestants. Comcast also produced its own one-hour special, “American Ninja Challenge,” to select an American champion to compete on “Ninja Warrior.”

At Mip, TBS will present “Women of Ninja Warrior,” a new female version of “Ninja Warrior” that G4 is broadcasting in four episodes and “is different from the usual American gameshow,” according to Sugiyama.

“U.S. viewers had never seen anything like it,” Sugiyama comments.

TBS archrival Fuji TV has also found that wackiness, Japanese-style, translates into foreign sales. One recent example is “Hole in the Wall,” a Fuji gameshow in which pairs of contestants must contort themselves to fit through a gap in a moving barrier. If they fail, they are unceremoniously shoved into a pool of water. Fuji has licensed the format to FremantleMedia, which developed localized versions of the show for Russia, Indonesia, Spain, Italy and France.

Additionally, Fox in the U.S., the BBC in the U.K. and Nine in Australia are gearing up to make “Hole in the Wall”-inspired pilots.

Fuji will also be repping at Mip “Love Crossroads,” a new “love reality” show in which couples test their love by each partner trying to meet at date spots significant to their relationship. The format has already been licensed to Italy.

Meanwhile, Nippon Television Network will be showcasing “Quiz Stadium,” a quizshow in which teams of celebrity contestants work together on challenges in a variety of categories, from completing ad jingle lyrics to reciting tongue twisters. Each team consists of three players and a “manager” who picks the player to answer a given question. The managers can also trade players with each other in the final round of play.

“Japanese quizshows differ (from ones in the West) in that often everybody is trying to achieve the same goal,” Sugiyama says. “There’s less competition between individuals.”

There is much, more where these and other hit shows come from, he adds.

“Japanese TV is a treasure box of ideas,” he explains. “We have a wealth of scripts and stories that are unknown to the outside world. We have many shows here that were big hits but were never licensed and so never got exposure abroad.”

Mip will shed light on some of these ideas with conferences April 8 on the Japanese market, animation and formats. Also, Japanese broadcasters will have their programming treasures on full display in the Palais. The buried ones, though, will still take some digging.

TIP SHEET

What: Mip 2008

When: April 7-11

Where: Palais des Festivals, Cannes

Who: At least 13,000 participants, including 4,500 companies, from more than 100 countries

Web: miptv.com

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