“Susunu Denpa Shonen,” which airs every Sunday night on NTV, has become a bona fide phenomenon partly by tweaking noses and partly by joining hands — call it cynicism cut with altruism

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While the long-running show has produced a number of different mini-booms, its most well-known segment has been its travel series, which has basically involved feckless comics (or more precisely, comical people) traveling to the globe’s four corners, through Europe, Africa, South America and Asia. The travel conditions have become progressively more elaborate. The original concept of a pair of travelers, hitchhiking and working in odd jobs, was proceeded by that of an enka singer having to sell her tapes in the countryside of Thailand, and then later by a pair pedaling a swan boat 4,000 km from India to Indonesia.

This past Sunday the program launched a new series in which a couple must travel around the world in 80 days. The hook? They’ve been given an Iridium Pager and “Denpa Shonen” is asking the world to lend the voyagers a hand. Send e-mail and make an offer — a home-cooked meal in Topeka, a lift to Berlin, lodging in Cairo.

“Denpa Shonen’s” producers are crafty and get a lot of mileage out of their own Godlike powers and the hardships of the mere mortals (who signed on the dotted line), but they’ve always managed to portray humankind’s inherent goodness. Invariably there’s a good soul who will take them in.

The show’s formula is getting a bit stale, but the “Around the World in 80 Days” concept is very relevant (especially if you consider the show’s name, which translates as “radio-wave youth”). It’s not just about the power of the Internet to propel them around the globe, but also about the freedom of wirelessness, of being nomadic yet connected. (Considering that Iridium filed for bankruptcy in August, this is quite a PR coup for the satellite telecom company.)

In a related story (says the smiling anchorperson), Cisco Systems, a major maker of network routing equipment, bought a chunk of goodwill by sponsoring the recent NetAid event. In conjunction with the United Nations Development Program, a one-day concert including performances from the Eurythmics, David Bowie, George Michael and many others was cybercasted to the world. They even managed to get Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela to provide a few opening remarks.

The cynic in me was roused by reports that emphasized only the technical achievement: “2.3 million streams were delivered,” “Webcast runs for 13 continuous hours.” And given the organizers’ post-event silence, it would appear that not much of an immediate profit was made. It was reported that three venues (in London, New York and Geneva) were only half full.

NetAid organizers, however, said exposure and education were the main aim. Speaking to Reuters, Cisco spokesman Kurt Jenkins said, “(NetAid) was more about getting people involved. Driving them to the site (and) getting them to commit time” for various projects.

The NetAid.org site was launched last month under a grand motto: “The power to end extreme poverty is now online.” Though the initial offerings were slim, the site has gradually added crucial content, such as “What Works,” i.e. specific aid programs that have succeeded. The site offers a virtual collection box where you can make a donation, even by credit card, but it aspires to do more by pooling resources. It will link NGOs and charitable concerns with individuals and corporations which request that certain conditions are attached to their donations, which need not be monetary.

Perhaps the most pertinent section is “The Internet and Poverty“, which cites examples in which the Net has helped save the environment, assisted farmers and created jobs. As the material states, everything changes when you see access to information as “a right, rather than a privilege.”

Concurrently with NetAid, Telecom 99 was being held in Geneva. The nine-day event hosted representatives from 164 countries, 180,000 participants and 2,000 members of the media. Between all the wining and dining (9 tons of meat! 50,000 canaps!), a few attendees managed to talk about bridging the gap between the digital haves and have-nots.

Yes, Telecom 99 is essentially a trade show, and of course there were announcements of new relationships (did anybody NOT announce a strategic link with Nokia?) and new gadgets (WAP-enabled Web phones galore). But Telecom 99 is also sponsored by the International Telecommunications Union, an organization that could easily be dubbed the telecom industry’s United Nations. Telecom providers and cellular phone makers have rallied around ITU because the standards it establishes will ultimately decide the market’s landscape.

There is another landscape to consider. As one U.N. representative put it, “As long as (the Internet) doesn’t reach the poorest areas in the world, we don’t have the right to call it a global revolution.”

Beyond the latest gadgets for wandering businessmen and the lucrative market of providers, a key issue is how cellular networks can provide gateways to the global economy for poor and isolated communities. (An excellent telecommunications survey published this month in The Economist reports on the ways in which public access projects in Africa and Bangladesh have created jobs and kick-started entrepreneurial projects.) These types of issues were addressed at Telecom 99, but they didn’t get hardly as much press as Microsoft’s entry into the wireless arena.

Which takes us back to our “Denpa Shonen” voyagers, wherever they are. I don’t expect them to send any impassioned pleas from Sudan to end world hunger; it’s not the show’s style. At the very least, though, viewers will get a nonsaccharine taste of our capacity for kindness, which isn’t that far away away from real charity.