Daily TV viewing shrinks to 3 1/2 hours

Tokyo– The Japanese, once one of the most TV-addicted people on the planet, are drifting away from the tube — forcing networks to scramble for other sources of revenue, from pic production, satellite services, Internet streaming sites and other new technologies.

Daily TV viewing time, which averaged more than five hours in the 1970s, shrank to 3 hours and 28 minutes by 2010, according to figures compiled by the NHK Broadcasting Culture Research Institute.

Males aged 10 to 20 are watching less than two hours a day.

Meanwhile, program ratings have been trending downward for terrestrial networks, pubcaster NHK and commercial rivals TV Asahi, NTV, TBS, Fuji TV and TV Tokyo, despite spikes for major sport events and other special programming.

In June not one show on commercial TV in the 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. “Golden Time” slot won a rating of 10 or above — once considered the minimum for survival.

Even long-running shows that once seemed immortal have either been axed or are on the brink. One that recently got the heave-ho after 43 seasons is period drama “Mito komon,” which bowed in 1969. At its peak, the show’s ratings reached as high as 43.7, but recently it has struggled to achieve double digits. Its last episode will air in December on MBS, an affiliate of TBS.

Various causes have been advanced for the ratings slide. Like other countries, Japanese families no longer sit around the TV watching the same show, as viewers did in the industry’s 1960-to-1990s heyday. The Japanese now consume entertainment on a range of platforms, including PCs, smartphones and game consoles.

Also, an estimated 100,000 households, including a lot of elderly “Mito komon” fans, failed to make the switch from analog to digital in July, and have effectively given up TV entirely.

But the biggest cause, says Hiro Otaka, a media analyst for the Bunka Tsushin entertainment news services, is that “the programs have become boring.”

Otaka blames network execs who have responded to falling ratings by cutting costs and hedging their bets.

“They don’t put as much money or creativity into the shows as they used to, so program content has declined,” he says. “You have so many of these cheaply made variety shows with comedians, it’s hard to tell them apart. Viewers have just become tired of the same thing again and again.”

At the same time, well-paid network execs are becoming “salarymen,” Otaka says, using a Japanese-English term that has a negative connotation of conformist timeclock-puncher.

Innovation could come from the burgeoning satellite sector. Using frequencies freed up by the end of the analog broadcasts in July, the number of broadcast satellite channels is skedded to grow from 12 to 31 by March.

Otaka, however, is skeptical that Japanese versions of high-quality shows like “The Wire” will emerge from such strands.

“They don’t have the money for one thing — Japan is a small market compared to the U.S. Also, only the terrestrial networks have true nationwide reach. The satellite channels and local stations can’t compete.”

Imported shows are a potential source of stimulus, but there are few on skeds. Fuji TV broadcasts “Mad Men” at 2:30 a.m., while TV Tokyo airs “24 Hours.”

Fuji TV has drawn flack for programming too many Korean dramas — part of the so-called “Korean Wave” (in Japanese, hanryu) of pop culture that has been sweeping the country in the past few years.

An estimated 6,000-10,000 demonstrators protested against Korean content outside Fuji’s headquarters Aug. 21.

“Fuji is overdoing it,” says Otaka. “It needs to be more selective about the quality of the Korean shows it programs. Right now, it’s airing so many because they’re cheap — but that only contributes to the downward spiral.”

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