When regular television broadcasts in America started in 1939, the intrinsic evils of the medium were already being discussed, and by the ’50s the term “idiot box” had been coined.

Academics came up with theories that tried to make sociological sense of these perceived evils, but basically it came down to the idea that television occupied time that might have been better spent reading, playing or conversing.

Despite technological advances, the relationship between television and humans has not fundamentally changed in 60 years. People still sit passively in front of it and soak up what they see. TV has been called a crutch, a bad habit. But if viewers are hooked on it, then the television industry is just as addicted to this relationship. The whole business model for broadcast television is built on the idea that people will drop whatever they are doing at certain times of the day to watch TV.

The business model is breaking down. The advertisers that made TV viable and ubiquitous are abandoning it, presumably because there are more media to capture people’s attention. This has led to a sense of crisis in the industry.

On March 21, NHK broadcast a live debate about the future of television between a cross-section of viewers and TV industry professionals on its occasional “Nippon no Kore Kara” (“Japan From Now On”) program. Because NHK is a public broadcaster, it does not have to worry about the business model, and the tone of the three-hour program betrayed no sense of crisis. The two NHK announcers were as ebullient as kindergarten teachers on the first day of school.

But if NHK seemed to stand somewhat outside the ensuing debate, its attitude as moderator was appallingly presumptuous. Basically, the debate started from the position that television not only remains a central component of our lives, but is the central component of our lives. The first question was, “Is TV still the hero of the living room?” The TV industry people, mostly producers for commercial stations, took the question at face value. The viewers just looked perplexed.

“Do you mean,” asked one housewife, “that TV brings my family together?” — thus questioning the whole premise of the debate, which was built on the nostalgic image of a family gathered around the television set in the ’60s “because there was nothing else back then,” as one participant said. The question assumed there was something else now — cell phones, the Internet — but that, unlike those other media, television united a family. Well-known copywriter Shigesato Itoi commented, “It seems strange to emphasize that people who already live together don’t assemble just to watch TV anymore.”

But that is exactly what people who work in TV fear or, at least, hope is not true. The reason they fear it is because if it is true the whole financial justification for commercial broadcasting vanishes. Advertising is based on ratings, which are measured in terms of households. And while households have become increasingly atomized, the family is still the ideal unit, which is why so much commercial TV programming is exactly the same. Producers think they have to appeal to an idealized Japanese family, because that is what advertisers pay for.

As the viewers in the studio pointed out, that’s a myth. “I don’t watch much TV,” said one woman who identified herself as a mother. “But when I do, I just get annoyed.”

Only the industry people were surprised at the home audience response to the next question, “Does TV satisfy your needs?” It was 86 percent negative. A schoolteacher in the studio represented this reaction by saying, “TV stations see ratings as being more important than viewers.” When the industry people indicated that they didn’t see any difference — “Don’t ratings reflect popular taste?” — a self-employed man said, “Just because a higher percentage of people watch a show doesn’t mean it’s good.”

Even NHK wasn’t spared. “I don’t think NHK should do variety shows,” said one woman, while another commented that NHK productions “lacked originality.” Former NHK announcer Yoshinori Imai, who is now a vice-chairman of the public broadcaster, countered these slights with the condescending observation that “many viewers are prejudiced against NHK.”

The other industry people didn’t take the same smug tone, but they couldn’t answer the viewers’ complaints and ended up passing the buck: Advertisers made them do it. The two ad-company representatives in the room fell back on the excuse that they had no other “tools” at their disposal except ratings.

The importance of this revelation made itself apparent once the debate moved to the meat of the matter: Will the Internet supplant broadcasting as the platform for TV? Nothing scared the industry more, especially when confronted with surveys showing that an increasing number of young Japanese purposely avoid TV. Takeshi Natsuno, one of the entrepreneurs behind the YouTube-like service Nico Nico Douga, said that you won’t need video recorders once all TV programming becomes on-demand.

The industry people could only react defensively: How are you going to pay for content? Only TV stations can provide the kind of quality people expect from television. But the viewers had already told them they didn’t think broadcast content was very good. “There’s nothing I even want to watch on-demand,” said one middle-aged man.

“Most people are still attached to TVs,” said Itoi near the end of the discussion, “but it’s odd that we’re shocked to hear that some people don’t own one.” Indeed it is, and that’s probably because until recently those people were never acknowledged by the industry. If you think in terms of civilization rather than individuals, after 60-plus years maybe the idiot box isn’t an addiction. Maybe it’s only a passing phase.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.