The Jan. 16 issue of Shukan Bunshun carries an article that lists and describes the 10 worst TV specials broadcast during the New Year’s holidays. Coming up with a Worst 10 is not difficult, since practically any special broadcast during the New Year’s break could qualify for a list of the 10 Worst Programs of the Year.

However, Shukan Bunshun’s selection committee had the audacity to include in the list NHK’s venerable New Year’s Eve song contest, “Kohaku Utagassen,” which is a certifiable Japanese institution, equal in cultural standing to the Emperor’s New Year’s appearance in front of the palace.

Bunshun is hardly a pillar of propriety, and the fact that the show was listed No. 10 on the list gives the impression that it may have been added as a token bit of status quo-bashing. But in truth “Kohaku” has been losing its critical exemption for more than a decade due to its increasing irrelevance to younger viewers.

Even Asahi Shimbun, which is a pillar of propriety, saw fit to question the show’s status as an inviolable cultural event when it invited former NHK director Ben Wada and former Fuji TV producer Takeshi Yokozawa to debate the show’s significance. It says something that Wada took the position that the show is an embarrassing anachronism while Yokozawa thinks it’s an invaluable tradition.

In the debate, which was published Dec. 29, two days before the show aired, Wada’s general opinion was that “Kohaku” is nothing more than a relic that tries to pass itself off as a celebration of all that’s Japanese. At best, it’s amateurish television. Yokozawa reluctantly agrees that the show’s quality leaves much to be desired, but “a sea bream that’s rotten is still a sea bream.”

At one point, Wada equates the show’s overall simple-mindedness with the malaise that permeates Japanese television, as if “Kohaku” were a kind of standard all other programs followed. “[‘Kohaku’] is what television is all about,” he says, “and we created it.”

This particular idea was reiterated in a slightly different form a week later in the same newspaper. In an editorial, independent producer Yutaka Shigenobu pointed out that 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of the first TV broadcast in Japan. In addition, sometime during the year, digital terrestrial TV broadcasts will begin in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. The government has stipulated that all terrestrial broadcasts will be digital by the year 2011.

Shigenobu expressed a common worry among media insiders that content is lagging way behind hardware in the race toward all-digital, interactive television, a technology that will also make possible data broadcasts, TV on your cell phones and programs you can watch on your computer.

The problem is that broadcasters aren’t developing anything new to take advantage of the technology. When BS digital debuted two years ago, it was hailed as the next big thing, but sales of digital tuners have been far below expectations, and for a good reason. There’s little that’s worth watching.

Shigenobu claims that commercial stations do not take these new technologies seriously. They are still hung up on ratings, which determine advertising rates. New technologies call for innovative ideas, but TV networks can’t think beyond viewer share and thus stick to “safe” decisions, which means copying shows that are already successful. New types of programs that will take advantage of the new technology are considered too risky.

The producer would like to see the government get involved. He mentions France, where the authorities recycle revenues from television into the movie and TV production industries to produce quality films and TV shows. He also talks about the United States, where in 1970 the federal government stipulated that the three big networks must use outside producers for non-news programs.

It’s doubtful that the Japanese government would ever tell TV stations how to run their business, but Shigenobu’s comment about ratings being the main obstacle to change is a valid one. The news about last month’s “Kohaku” broadcast was that it drew the second lowest viewer share in its history, about 47 percent. That’s pretty high, but given that the show’s ratings hit a peak of 81 percent in the early ’60s, it’s obvious that the show has a lot more competition now. NHK is, of course, a public entity, so ratings shouldn’t matter. But they do, if only as a matter of pride.

In the debate, Yokozawa said that the ratings of “Kohaku” prove that the show still has cultural significance. Wada replied that “ratings are meaningless.” Just because a particular TV set is receiving the signal for a particular show doesn’t mean that someone is actually watching it. But that isn’t what really bothers him about the ratings obsession. “Why is it considered good that everyone watches the same thing?” he asks.

Wada’s question will strike many people as being academic. Ratings, after all, are supposed to reflect people’s tastes and desires. But when everyone is airing the same kinds of shows, all ratings do is reflect tastes comparatively. A high-rated show might simply be one that viewers find less bad than other shows being broadcast at the same time.

In actuality, Japanese broadcasters don’t really care about viewers’ tastes and desires. They want things to be simple and, wherever possible, cheap. Those are the primary considerations. The uniformly abysmal quality of New Year’s specials proves it. In that regard, “Kohaku Utagassen” really is the most representative Japanese TV show, since it’s less about music than about lots of famous people being in one place at one time, which is basically the theme of all New Year’s specials. Let’s face it, content is too hard.