Last weekend, former Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka, prior to her official announcement to stand as a candidate in the upcoming House of Representatives election, held a press conference; or, more exactly, two press conferences — one for the national newspapers and one for the TV networks. No magazines were allowed, and print reporters couldn’t use tape recorders. As for content, she expressly forbade “heckling (yaji)” and “mudslinging (chusho)” during the press conference. Such a proscription would normally be unnecessary, but Tanaka obviously wanted to pre-empt any possible attempts to sidetrack the press conference into areas she didn’t want to talk about. Everyone complied.

TV Asahi’s morning news show, Super Morning, represented the media’s disgruntlement with all of this by listing Tanaka’s imperious demands and showing an angry photographer being barred from the proceedings. However, they reported the press conference itself straight, just the way she wanted it. Whatever TV Asahi’s reservations about Tanaka as a politician or a person, they know that whenever she’s scheduled to appear on the air ratings go up, so they toe the Tanaka line just like everybody else.

If you want an example of how the obsession of networks with ratings adversely affects the news, this is a pretty good one. But if you want an example of how this obsession adversely affects all of TV, you won’t find a better one than an incident revealed two weeks ago involving a Nippon TV producer bribing household-ratings monitors to watch his shows.

In his public apology on Oct. 24, NTV President Toshio Hagiwara described the producer’s actions as both a “sin” and a “blasphemy.” The religious connotation is apt since the television industry sees itself as somehow serving a higher calling, even if the ratings system that’s so sacrosanct is tied to money.

Ratings have come to dominate Japanese commercial television so completely that producers think about nothing else. According to Flash, the magazine that claims to have uncovered the scandal, the salaries of NTV producers are totally based on ratings; which explains why the unnamed “sinner” spent upward of 2 million yen of his own money to secure a mere 0.64 percent increase in the share numbers for variety specials he produced.

There are only 2,400 monitors nationwide. They are selected and supervised by Video Research, Ltd., the only TV ratings survey company in Japan. The identities of the monitors are kept strictly secret, which is why the producer had to hire a detective agency to track down a handful. He then hired two other people to visit the monitors and ask them to watch his shows with the excuse of having them fill out questionnaires about the shows. If they filled them out,they’d get gift certificates worth between 5,000 yen and 10,000 yen.

According to a former employee of Video Research, who was interviewed in the Asahi Shimbun, the margin of error for a program with a 10 percent share is 2.4 percent. That margin goes up to 3.3 percent with a 20-share show. Given that the idea of ratings is to provide a standard on which to base advertising fees, it hardly sounds rigorous enough. The former employee added that VR “doesn’t encourage professionalism,” only its own dominance of the system. The presidents of VR always come from advertising backgrounds, and Japan’s major ad companies are the main stockholders. Another complaint about ratings is that it sacrifices quality for quantity. Based on extrapolations that are doubtful (2,400 households representing all the TVs in Japan), VR tells us how many people are watching a show, but not what kind of people are watching the show (demographics) or under what circumstances they’re watching the show.

TV critic Yukichi Amano, also in the Asahi, went the extra mile. He said that the “religion” of ratings is mammonism, since everything is converted to a monetary value. This scandal, he says, provides a good opportunity for viewers to ask themselves what they really want from television. The aspect of the scandal that’s gone unremarked is the type of programming that the producer specialized in. His productions were variety shows centered around celebrities talking about themselves. It is the most common type of show on TV, and distinguishing one from another is virtually impossible.

Quality, in terms of programming itself, is completely irrelevent, so the only way to guarantee higher ratings — which not only bump the producer up to a higher salary level but might also prompt his superiors to turn his variety special into a variety series — is to manipulate them. Since the scandal broke there have been rumors that this sort of cheating may be more common than previously thought, but given current programming priorities it hardly seems like something to get upset about.

Critic Nobuo Shiga told Kyodo News that the scandal “damages the credibility of the whole TV industry,” but the truth is that it only damages credibility within the industry. To the vast majority of people who watch TV it has no effect whatsoever, since the content of commercial TV is controlled by advertisers on the one side and talent agencies on the other. These two poles determine what is aired, not the viewing public, which has been duped into thinking that the stuff they are served — insipid dramas and redundantly mindless talk shows — is what they demand. Only in a world where nobody knows what they want does this system make sense.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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