Formats find fame in Western markets

TOKYO — Once such a hard sell, Japanese gameshow formats are a hot item overseas, especially in the West.

Formats such as “Hole in the Wall,” originally a segment on a Fuji TV variety show in which contestants contort themselves to fit through cutouts in moving panels, have been sold to 33 territories worldwide, including the U.S. and U.K., thanks in large part to the buzz they created on YouTube. The U.S. version of the show, which bowed on Fox this fall, was a ratings flop, and has since been axed.

Still there are plenty otherJapanese game formats out there, including obstacle course “Sasuke,” which aired as three hourlong specials on the Tokyo Broadcasting System, and has inspired copycats.

Both shows have aired in the U.S. Cabler G4 ran an edited version of “Sasuke” called “Ninja Warrior,” and Spike TV has broadcast footage from “Takeshi’s Castle” for its “MXC” skein.

“Differences between East and West (in gameshow concepts) are no longer an obstacle,” says Tokyo Broadcasting System foreign program sales deputy veep Makito “Mac” Sugiyama. “In fact, the West actually prefers the differences now.”

That’s given rise to shows such as ABC’s ratings hit “I Survived a Japanese Game Show,” which was actually conceived by Danish producers.

Japanese networks long concentrated almost exclusively on the domestic market. But that changed with 1989 ABC smash “America’s Funniest Home Videos.” The show was based on a segment on the TBS variety show “Fun TV With Kato-chan and Ken-chan.” But buyer interest in Japanese gameshow formats, says Nippon Television Group sales rep Keiji Watanabe, didn’t really start to take off until about three years ago.

And while Asians are largely not interested, more buyers are inquiring about formats at Mipcom and other markets, Watanabe notes.

Barriers to further growth remain, however. The biggest, says Fuji Creative Corp. sales rep Shigehito Sato, is the different way shows are made in Japan.Japanese versions are hits because of the celeb quotient of the participants and the banter between hosts and guests — quips that lose something in translation.

Still Saito says there have been successes. “Iron Chef,” a Fuji TV cooking contest show with a celeb emcee and judges, became cult hit, dubbed in English on the Food Network. The original spawned an English-language incarnation on the Food Net in 2004, five years after the original went off the air.

With a treasure trove of programming going back several decades, there’s little fear the Japanese will run out of gameshow formats to sell. Sometimes formats are perhaps too popular — or familiar. TBS has sued the Alphabet network and Endemol over ABC’s summer hit “Wipeout,” claiming copyrights of not only “Sasuke,” but also “Takeshi’s Castle,” have been ripped off.

In order to protect their interests, Japanese companies are turning to Hollywood percenteries. TV Asahi has hired William Morris to rep three of its variety formats: “Ai no Apron” (Love’s Apron), celeb cooking show; “Geinojin setsuyaku Battle ikkagetsu ichimanen” (Celebrity Economic Battle — One Month, ¥10,000) again involving celebs who try to live on $100 for a month; and “Kakuzuke shiau onnatachi” (Women Rate Each Other), in which femme contestants assess each other in various categories, with input from celeb guests.  

“We can do a better job of protecting the client’s interests,” William Morris Asia director Grace Chen says.

The tenpercentary is also drumming up additional sources of revenue. One example is its recent deal with Fuji to rep rights to live stage shows of “Iron Chef.”

“It’s a new approach to live entertainment,” Chen says.

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