Japanese bureaucrats, especially those in the mighty trade ministry METI (Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry), have long actively promoted what they consider key export industries, from cars to computers.
But for decades that did not include makers of film, TV shows and other content, who mostly were left to their own devices, and looked on with envy as their counterparts in Asia benefited from more lavish (if at times intrusive) government support.
But as a flurry of recent government-backed initiatives has made clear, the days of indifference are now officially over.
TV biz org ATP (Assn. of All Japan TV Program Production Cos.), with the support of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications (MIC) and other government bodies, held the first Tokyo TV Forum last year with the aim of promoting international co-production partnerships.
At a pitching session, 19 commissioning editors from 11 countries and regions heard pitches from 21 Japan-based producers. The second TTVF will be Dec. 10-12, with reps from the BBC, PBS and other leading foreign broadcasters skedded to attend.
In August, MIC announced the selection of 10 proposals from 107 submitted by regional broadcasters, production houses and other entities for shows to be co-produced with overseas partners, using government subsidies. The aim is to develop continuing cross-border relationships, not simply produce one-off shows.
With the support of MIC and METI, pubcaster NHK and leading commercial broadcasters will pitch 10 formats to prospective foreign partners at a joint event to be held at Mipcom.
Among the formats skedded for presentation are NHK’s “Time Scoop Hunter” (Japanese title), a faux docu series featuring a time traveling journo, and Fuji TV’s “Hoko Tate” (Spear and Shield), a variety show that stages real-world challenges mostly for laughs, such as pitting a team of 11-year-old boys against a team of 55-year-old men in physical contests.
MIC is pressing on with these and other initiatives, says Information and Communications Bureau deputy director Teruhiko Sato, despite sharp budget cuts.
“We had about $64 million annually (for content promotion) until about two years ago, but it’s much less than that now. We’re trying to be smarter with the money we have,” says Sato.
For example, the $32,000 MIC gives to each of 10 selected regional co-prod projects may not sound like much, but “it gives the producers credibility and helps them raise funds elsewhere,” he says.
Formats are one promising growth area, Sato says, since they are easier to sell in the lucrative U.S. and European markets, as well as having greater upside potential than international co-prods.
“Co-productions tend to be money losers for the (Japanese) networks,” Sato notes, “but they can earn a lot of money from format royalties.”
The same networks, he explains, also now see the benefit of banding together.
“They had been (selling formats) on their own, but not getting good results.” The MIC-backed Mipcom pitch event, he believes, “will have more impact.”
Another priority for MIC is not just selling Japanese TV content abroad, but localizing them for individual markets.
That means not only subbing and dubbing, but remaking shows with local staff and talent. “In Southeast Asia, content is relatively cheap,” he explains. “If you have to use a Japanese director, costs are going to rise.”
Piracy is yet another profit-draining problem that Japanese TV content face, especially in Asia. “When a Japanese animated show is broadcast in Japan, pirated versions are available on the Internet one hour later in Korea and China,” Sato explains.
One solution is TV Tokyo’s partnership with Chinese video portal Tudou, announced in November of last year, to simulcast subbed versions of 60 TV Tokyo toon shows, including such long-running hits as “Naruto” and “Bleach,” to Chinese auds. Other barriers to contents export remain, such as strict copyright regs that have long made getting permissions for overseas use of shows a nightmare, but Sato insists that the ministry is in the contents promotion biz for the long haul.
“Korea started getting behind its contents industry after the Asian financial crisis more than a decade ago, and now they’re seeing the results,” he comments. “We need the same level of commitment in Japan.”