New worldwide sales division bellwether of change

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Territory Reports

Japanese networks used to regard overseas sales like an after-dinner mint — a nice extra, but hardly essential to the meal.

Fuji Television Network, the ratings leader among Japan’s five nets, proved that priorities have changed with the July launch of its worldwide production and sales division.

Headed by Akihiro Arai, a veteran producer who shepherded some of Fuji’s biggest shows to ratings success, the new division is charged with not only flogging Fuji content to foreign buyers, but co-developing and co-producing scripted programming and reality formats, both original and based on existing Fuji shows.

One co-prod partner is FremantleMedia, with which Fuji has started a producers exchange program. During their months-long stays with the partner company, the producers only absorb the local corporate culture while developing contacts and ideas that may give birth to new shows and formats.

In terms of marketing, Fuji is focused for the moment on its own lineup, especially variety shows — potpourris that amuse auds with everything from celeb chatter to games, skits and reality-show-like segments.

“We have a lot of really interesting variety shows that have never been seen abroad,” Arai says. “Starting from this year’s Mipcom, we going to focus on marketing formats based on variety show content.”

One barrier to selling the original shows, Arai explains, is that “variety shows in Japan use professional comedians to get laughs, whereas similar shows in the West use amateurs.” Fuji intends to take this difference into account and develop formats, Arai says, “in which ordinary people can participate.”

As a producer on the daytime variety show “It’s OK to Laugh” (Waratte Ii Tomo), Arai developed segments featuring amateurs that helped dig the show out of the ratings doldrums — and into the record books. In 2002, “It’s OK to Laugh” emcee Tamori (real name: Kazuyoshi Morita) achieved a Guinness World Record as the longest-serving host of a live show, with 5,000 episodes. Tamori and his staff have since run the total to more 7,000; the show is celebrating its 28th season on the air this year.

One segment spinoff from “It’s OK to Laugh” that Fuji will bring to Mipcom is “Impact,” in which aspiring comics were given 15 seconds to make an impression on a panel of judges. Ones given the thumbs-up were allowed to complete their skits. The segment later morphed into a latenight show that acquired a cult following before leaving the air in 2006.

Two other new additions to Fuji’s Mipcom lineup are the current latenight sensations “Omobaka — Stare If You Dare,” in which comics compete mano a mano to crack each other up, and “Lost Love, Found Love,” in which women tell their tales of romantic woe to celeb “love masters” while potential suitors watch in another room. At the end, the guys decide whether they want to date the “loser at love.” The show also broadcasts specials in which losers in other categories, say personal hygiene, get an earful from not only celeb advisers but also friends and family members in the audience.

Only-in-Japan phenomena? Only for the moment, if Arai and his team have anything to say about it.

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