Japanese game show takes the world by storm

by William Hollingworth

Kyodo News

LONDON — A Japanese game show is taking the world by storm by becoming one of the top TV formats of recent times.

“Hole in the Wall” originally started off on Fuji Television Network in Japan, but has been sold now in more than 40 countries across. Executives lay the program’s success to its being “fun, fast and zany,” adding that the “unique” nature of many Japanese shows often makes them stand out from their European and American counterparts.

The show started off in Japan in 2006 as “Nokabe” (“Brain Wall”) and involves players contorting themselves to fit through cutouts in a large Styrofoam wall moving toward them. If the players, normally celebrities clad in silver spandex leotards, fail to make the necessary shape, they are knocked down by the wall and end up in a pool of water.

The format immediately attracted the attention of executives at FreemantleMedia (owned by RTL Group), which acquired the rights from Fuji and, working with partner production companies, has sold the format in more than 40 countries, including China, the U.S. and most of Europe.

“It immediately felt fresh and different to anything else I’d seen. Watching the clip, I couldn’t stop laughing and, with everyone having the same reaction, we knew we were onto something very special,” said Vasha Wallace, senior vice president of format acquisitions at FreemantleMedia. “It has been one of the fastest and highest selling formats in the world over the past two years.”

The company took the Japanese concept, which was part of a larger variety show, and molded it into a single program. It has proved a hit all over the world, and has been very popular with the all-important youth market so beloved of advertisers.

“Hole in the Wall,” as it is known in Britain, has had detractors, though. Some claimed the state-funded BBC had “dumbed down” by purchasing the show at a time when producers should be focusing on quality content and not chasing ratings.

But Wallace responds, “We think everyone understands the spirit of ‘Hole in the Wall.’ It’s about the universal language of slapstick — it’s light-hearted entertainment that is funny and fresh.”

And the format has proved to be a ratings winner in many countries, gaining the No. 1 position for its time slot in Japan, Australia, the Netherlands and Britain.

Wallace, who says she and her team keep a close eye on Japanese TV for ideas, has worked with all the main broadcasters, including Nippon Television Network and Tokyo Broadcasting System.

She said: “Japanese television has a well-deserved reputation for being very unique. The variety of shows across the main networks means that there is a constant supply of innovative and different programs on air there, and Japanese shows do things you don’t always expect — they really push the boundaries of what can be done on television.”

Ian Reader, professor of Japanese studies at Manchester University, said, “A lot of Japanese popular culture is catchy and has captured attention across the globe, partly because it combines a visual, indeed slapsticklike, dimension that is highly colorful, with a simplicity that anyone can understand.”