/ |

Korean television dramas are not the real problem

by Philip Brasor

On July 23, actor Sosuke Takaoka tweeted that he was sick of all the Korean dramas on Fuji TV, a network he “used to be indebted to,” and demanded more “traditional” Japanese programming. “If anything related to South Korea is on,” he continued, “I just turn it off.” The backlash was swift, and the actor eventually apologized for his rant, saying many people had misunderstood him. In any case his talent agency fired him soon thereafter.

Takaoka’s comments were understood to be the catalyst for the demonstrations outside Fuji TV’s offices on Aug. 7. Hundreds of people carrying Japanese flags and singing the national anthem called on the network to stop broadcasting Korean content. As with Takaoka’s comments, response to the protest was divided. Some agreed with it, while others despaired over the obvious outpouring of anti-Korean nationalism if not downright racism.

But there was another reaction, characterized by comedian-musician Ryo Fukawa, who said on his FM radio show that however one interprets Takaoka’s opinions, he had a right to voice them. “Freedom of speech is only a phrase in Japan,” he declared. This sentiment was echoed by show biz columnist Yoshiko Matsumoto, who wrote, “I am not interested in Korean dramas, but if I said that, would I become a target?” Some might say the fact that both Fukawa and Matsumoto said these things proves they’re wrong about freedom of speech, but neither have any direct relation to television. Fukawa admits that he’s washed up on TV because of his attitude. Matsumoto makes her living from writing.

Takaoka, on the other hand, happens to be married to Aoi Miyazaki, one of the most popular actresses in Japan. The tabloid press, which loves to pick on men whose wives are more successful than they are, would like nothing better than to see them divorce. The weeklies Bunshun and Friday demanded to know why Miyazaki hasn’t left her husband over his comments. Matsumoto takes a different tack: “Why doesn’t she publicly defend him?”

The reason she doesn’t do either is that she’s protecting her own interests, which depend on TV, and Takaoka’s beef is not so much with Korean pop culture but with Fuji, which presumably no longer hires him. For sure, his anger indicated latent resentment toward Korea, which is ironic since his most famous role was a Korean-Japanese character in the movie “Pacchigi,” but his real complaint is against Japanese TV, whose reliance on Korean product is one aspect of a larger issue that he may see as a brake on his career. From 2 to 5 p.m. every weekday, Fuji TV broadcasts Korean dramas. According to a Fuji employee interviewed by the weekly magazine Gendai, these dramas garner a 4 percent audience share, which isn’t great but is nevertheless “good for that timeframe,” and “licensing Korean dramas is really cheap.” The decision to run Korean content is a financial one.

The circumstances surrounding Takaoka’s dismissal are vague, but his agency relies a great deal on TV. According to a recent article in Shukan Post, the complacency of mainstream media pundits in the face of Japanese television’s towering irrelevance is in direct proportion to the existing commercial networks’ stranglehold on the airwaves. Citing countless examples of pointless programming, the article fixed TV’s decline as starting in the 1980s, when the first wave of Japanese TV producers — mostly idealists who entered the industry to change society — were replaced by a new generation who wanted to make money. They didn’t even solicit advertising. Sponsors threw money at them.

The secret to their success was lack of competition. The five networks were given the rights to public airwaves practically for free, and the yearly usage fees remain ridiculously low. In Japan there are 128 TV stations that, altogether, pay about ¥5 billion a year in fees and make ¥3 trillion a year.

According to the Post, politicians are in thrall to broadcasters because TV is seen as the only key to electability in Japan. When analog broadcasts stopped on July 24, it freed up 200 megahertz of bandwidth, an incredible resource for the nation, but rather than auction off frequencies to broadcast ventures, the government does nothing. There are rumors that the networks will receive some bandwidth to broadcast “one-seg” TV programs to cell phones, but the one-seg boom has passed, eclipsed by smart phones. Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Kaoru Yosano has suggested that the reconstruction of Tohoku be funded by a tax targeting cellphone users. Relative to how much bandwidth they use, providers already pay 200 times what broadcasters pay for rights to the airwaves.

Without competition, quality is an afterthought, and the Post shows how commercial TV became a game of one-upmanship. If somebody had a popular show, you copied the format. When this sort of thing goes on long enough, all shows become the same show. With ad revenues down drastically, the point now is to save money, and it’s much cheaper to buy Korean dramas than it is to produce original shows. When Panasonic recently pulled its long-time sponsorship of the drama series “Mito Komon” TBS cancelled it, even though it was still popular, rather than look for a new sponsor. Programming, and thus public service, is no longer the prime task of broadcasters. TBS made more money last year from real estate than from advertising sales; and one reason home shopping is so prevalent on TV is that the networks now have their own catalogue sales subsidiaries. Fuji TV’s is Dinos, which means a portion of the money Dinos makes over the air goes to Fuji TV. A professor interviewed by the Post says this is a violation of the Anti-monopoly Act (Dokusen Kinshi-ho).

Takaoka’s anger inflamed jingoistic resentments, but few media pundits identified the real source of his discontent, which was the sad state of Japanese TV. It doesn’t mean he shouldn’t apologize, but his inability to understand and articulate that discontent appears to be a symptom of the equally sad state of public discourse. When no one knows what they can or can’t say, they never get the chance to learn how to say it.

Philip Brasor blogs at philipbrasor.com.