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People keep their eyes on the TV screen — well, at least one eye

by Philip Brasor

When home-appliance manufacturer Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. announced earlier this month that it was renaming itself Panasonic Corp., the company said it was doing so in order to unify its various brand names, which, in addition to Panasonic, included Matsushita and National. This strategy would help the company’s image abroad as it refocuses on foreign consumers, most of whom have never heard of Matsushita or National.

In Japan the two brand names have nostalgic connotations, and discarding both while retaining Panasonic seems to be a way of letting go of the past. In December the company announced that it would soon be marketing a new television set with a built-in YouTube capability, meaning there would be a button on the remote that enables viewers to directly call up the YouTube Web site on their sets and watch the hundreds of thousands of videos posted there.

The age of Internet-ready television is already upon us, further eroding the traditional broadcast model, which itself seems stuck in the past. Every year around this time, the media scrutinizes the ratings of NHK’s New Year’s Eve song contest, “Kohaku Utagassen,” which is still the most-viewed program on Japanese television. The ratings, however, have dropped significantly since the 1980s, a development usually cited as evidence that the show, and NHK by association, is losing relevance.

The most recent “Kohaku” registered a momentary high audience share of 39.5 percent — two-tenths of a percentage point higher than the show’s record low rating in 2004. At first glance they look like good numbers, but given that the highest rating for the show ever was 77 percent in 1979, it’s obvious that “Kohaku” no longer packs the cultural wallop it once did.

Maybe it’s TV that’s lost impact. According to statistics compiled by the Asahi Shimbun, in 1979 there were 1,864 separate programs that attracted audience shares of more than 30 percent — meaning that, on average, five programs a day were watched by more than 30 percent of Japanese households. In 2007, there were only seven programs for the whole year that registered at least 30 percent shares.

This trend has been called terebi-ba-nare, or “abandoning TV,” but a representative of NHK tells the Asahi that this isn’t exactly the case. He cites an in-house 2005 survey that found the average person watched 3 hours and 27 minutes of television every weekday, which is 10 minutes more than the average in 1980. If ratings have fallen by almost half since 1980, how could people be watching more TV?

The answer is that the statistical pool related to TV watching has become diluted. There are now more late-night programs than there used to be. There are also more TV sets per household than there were in 1980, when entire families usually watched the same TV set. It would seem that viewers are being distributed among a greater number of sets and programs.

If that’s the case, the TV industry should be happy, but they aren’t, mainly because of what this trend says to advertisers. Media-research company Dentsu Soken did its own survey last year and found that the average person, while “using the television,” also used a number of other media at the same time — phones, computer games, the Net, etc. In 1980, people who watched TV really watched it. In 2007, the TV was simply on.

And sometimes when the TV is on, it is being used for something other than monitoring broadcasts. It may be used as a monitor for a DVD player or a video game. It may be connected to the Internet, a development that Panasonic and other manufacturers are already taking advantage of. As a representative of Dentsu Soken told the Asahi, everyone is now competing in a “media Battle Royale” for the consumer’s attention.

Broadcasters, who no longer have exclusive control over your TV, have been adjusting to this reality for some time. The ubiquitous “telop” — subtitles that reproduce what is being said on a TV show — were developed to refocus viewers’ attention to the screen with the understanding that they might be doing something else at the time. Producers have also adopted a strategy called “yamaba CM” (climax commercials) in which an advertisement is inserted right before the answer is given on a quiz show, thus forcing the viewer to watch through the commercial break. According to Asahi, the overuse of this device has caused a backlash: Whenever they hear the phrase “the answer after the commercial,” many viewers reflexively switch channels.

There are other structural changes. Drama series have been cut from six months in length to three months. Between-show commercial breaks have been dumped to take advantage of audiences already tuned in (CM breaks within programs have been lengthened); and shows that used to begin on the hour now begin a few minutes earlier to get the jump on the competition. Moreover, free commercial stations are facing fiercer competition from pay channels like Wowow, which has secured exclusive rights to air the 2008 Grand Slam tennis tournaments, and even NHK, which has appropriated the variety-show format (featuring lots of redundant celebrity “panelers”) for much of its own programming.

Having more options does not necessarily mean more choice. Broadcasters are also cutting costs, which is why every show features the same comedians competing for exposure and who therefore don’t demand much in the way of performance fees. The latest “comedy boom” is not wholly market-driven; it’s a supply-side phenomenon. Last week, Shukan Bunshun ran an article on how the yearend parade of TV specials is getting worse every year, since it’s basically one long show with the same people. Broadcasters are inadvertently pushing people away and, in the larger scheme of things, maybe that’s not so bad. I actually read a book over New Year’s.