Variety show’s fabrication scandal offers a glimpse into the nature of TV content

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

Earlier this month, weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun ran several articles on Nippon Television Network Corp.’s Sunday night variety show, “Sekai no Hate Made Itte Q,” claiming that the program had fabricated “festivals” in foreign countries and presented them in one of its semiregular segments as real local events. Allegations of yarase (faking it) are not uncommon in Japanese television, especially when it comes to variety show programming, with its focus on reporting that tests a viewer’s capacity for incredulity. The Bunshun pieces betrayed a tone that implied an even greater level of incredulity: Did Nippon TV really think anyone would believe this stuff?

When the Bunshun writer confronted Nippon TV with his suspicions, the company insisted the festivals were genuine. Later, after further scrutiny by other media outlets, Nippon TV walked back its defense and admitted that some things in the segments weren’t kosher. The matter is now being investigated by the network and the foreign festival segment has been pulled from the program for the time being.

Given the implausibility quotient of variety show content, this matter shouldn’t be that big a deal, but “Itte Q” is one of the most popular TV series in Japan and, more than exposing the show’s producers as possible charlatans, the scandal reveals how overconfident Nippon TV has become in an industry that has refused to acknowledge its steady erosion of significance.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications and the University of Tokyo, people under the age of 50 spend more time online than they do watching TV. Overall, peak viewing time seems to be Sunday evenings, and the survey says the audience is split “clearly” between people who watch NHK’s historical drama at 8 p.m., and those who watch commercial TV stations.

In a Nov. 17 article about the scandal, the Tokyo Shimbun said that, ratings-wise, Nippon TV owns Sunday night based on four programs: the long-running comedy show “Shoten” at 5:30 p.m.; “The Tetsuwan Dash,” starring boy band Tokio, at 7 p.m.; “Itte Q” at 8 p.m.; and the legal advice show “Gyoretsu no Dekiru Horitsu Sodanjo” at 9 p.m.

Of these, “Itte Q,” which premiered in 2007 and whose audience share can go as high as 20 percent, is the anchor, but a source at Nippon TV told the Tokyo Shimbun that ratings have not been “stable” lately, implying that the network takes the scandal seriously.

Variety shows in Japan typically follow a pattern. TV personalities comprised mostly of comedians assemble in a studio and comment on recorded segments featuring other comedians and shot on location. In the case of “Itte Q,” these comedians go to foreign countries where they “challenge” some activity that is difficult and/or dangerous.

The comedian featured in the “festival” segments has always been Daisuke Miyagawa, who is dispatched wearing typical Japanese neighborhood festival regalia to attend festivals in other countries, although the show’s definition of “festival” is loose. One could credibly call the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, an event Miyagawa once attended, a festival, but most of the events depicted are really competitions — the stranger the better: a cardboard-box boat race in Italy, a log-rolling contest in the United States, an office chair grand prix in Switzerland; essentially, anything that holds Miyagawa’s amateur game face up to ridicule.

On-air personalities are the driving force behind all variety shows, as professor Noboru Saijo of Edogawa University told the Tokyo Shimbun. The primary limitation for producers is the schedules of the selected talent. For “Itte Q,” that means the program can only attend festivals when Miyagawa is available, and Saijo thinks many of the events featured can’t realistically be called “festivals.” From this interpretative stretch it’s a short leap to actual fabrication, which, according to Bunshun, is what Nippon TV did in a segment that took place in Laos.

The segment, shown in May, claimed to cover a “bridge festival” centered on a stunt wherein contestants ride bicycles across a narrow plank laid over a manmade pool of muddy water. The Bunshun reporter said he was alerted to the show after it aired by friends who doubted its veracity. He then watched a recording of the segment “in shock” at how obviously fake it was.

In fact, Miyagawa himself, when he sees the “bridge” layout for the first time, says that it reminds him of “Takeshi’s Castle,” an old variety show that popularized this kind of slapstick stunt. If anything, the bridge setup depicted is a variety show cliche.

The Bunshun writer flew to Vientiane and found that the bridge was built by the “Itte Q” staff at the edge of a festival to promote local coffee production. The writer talked to local officials who said there was no such thing as a “bridge festival” and, in fact, bicycles were very rare in Laos. The Nippon TV crew had simply shot footage of the coffee festival to use as crowd scenes and paid a few laborers to pretend they were contest participants. Logistics was carried out by a contracted company from Thailand. In other words, Nippon TV had made up a festival that couldn’t be considered even remotely Laotian.

Prior to the episode of “Itte Q” broadcast on Nov. 18, the producers aired an apology and explained that their use of the word “festival” didn’t necessarily align with the meaning that Japanese people are familiar with. It was used to cover a wider range of activities.

Since no one will mistake anything on “Itte Q” for journalism, viewers may not care whether the apology is sincere. They tune in to laugh. All the segments on the program use a template that Japanese variety shows have pushed for decades: Show foreign cultures in an entertaining light and humiliate the Japanese celebrities in their attempts to understand those cultures. In that regard, resorting to yarase could be seen as admitting they ran out of ideas a long time ago.