19th JAMCO Online International Symposium
February 1 to February 28, 2010
International Exchange in TV Drama Productions
Comment: The Potential of Japanese TV Drama Broadcast in the US Market - The Need for Supply that Meet the Demands of the US Market and Its Viewers
Regardless of whether you like it or not, there is no other product that compares with American TV programs in the scale of dissemination around the world. Starting with Laramie, Ben Casey and Bewitched broadcast in Japan in the 1960s, there had been Columbo and Charlie’s Angels, followed in the 1990s by NYPD Blue, ER, Ally McBeal and Desperate Housewives and countless other drama series. It is no exaggeration to say that each generation of viewers came into contact with American society and lifestyles through these TV programs.
Wielding the world’s strongest “soft power,” American films and TV programs are being viewed even in Afghanistan and Arab nations where the US is struggling diplomatically. The United States is undoubtedly the largest single market for the industry, enjoying an overwhelming export surplus, although revenues from international markets are also held important for motion pictures. In television, there has been significant purchasing since the year 2000 of program formats for game and variety shows known as reality TV. However, it is rare for a foreign-produced drama to be shown without editing in major TV channels, including terrestrial, cable and satellite broadcasts, during prime time hours. American TV viewers are “domestic-oriented,” with an insular mentality that has remained unchanged even with ethnic diversification and political and economic globalization taking place in the country. However, there are instances of foreign drama becoming successful, so long as such productions are suited to the American mindset and are developed with the US market in mind from the planning stage.
Similar to the detailed description by Nippon Broadcasting System Chairman Hajime Shigemura of the form of development the Japanese broadcasting industry underwent, this author will begin with the description of the separation of operation between the broadcasting networks and production companies in the US counterpart. Followed by observations on the current conditions and issues involved in the US market, the report will examine into the potential of Japanese-made TV dramas for broadcast in the United States.
2. How the US Broadcasting Industry Developed: The Mature Syndication Market
In the early years of television in the US, the three major networks had produced their own programs.
Gradually, motion picture production companies (film studios), known as the Hollywood majors and enjoying a peak of prosperity, began to take on television productions. In the 1940s and the 1950s, nationally known stars such as Judy Garland appeared regularly on television programs in leading roles, contributing to movie ticket sales at the box office. The three major networks, while keeping news reporting, sports and marketing divisions at their New York headquarters on the East Coast, decided to relegate production of scripted drama and comedy productions, excluding certain late-night variety shows, to Hollywood on the West Coast, the center for specialists of “entertainment production” operations, namely, actors, scriptwriters, film directors, agents to which they belong, attorneys providing legal counseling to the entertainment industry, as well as experts in cinematography, lighting, casting, sets and makeup.
By the end of the 1960s, the prime time viewing rate for the three major networks rose to 90%. These networks, exercising their power as customers ordering program production, began to hold huge authority over these production companies. In exchange for broadcast of these programs, they gained copyright or marketing rights (syndication rights) over these television programs.
In the effort to stall further business growth of the three major television networks, the Hollywood majors rallied around the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and organized a lobby. Concerned with possible network domination, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the Financial Interest and Syndication Rules (otherwise known as Fin-Syn Rules) in 1970, prohibiting the networks to hold the rights to program production (ownership of financial rights to television programs) and syndication rights. These rules were put into effect in 1972.
Furthermore, the Prime Time Access Rule (PTAR) to broadcast programs other than those supplied by these networks in the prime time hours of 7 to 8 PM was also introduced in 1970. In 1977, the Department of Justice introduced a regulation aimed at antitrust protection, limiting network programming to five hours per week, thus eroding the production capabilities of the networks further.
As a result, these networks separated their syndication business divisions, with Viacom spinning off from CBS and Worldvision Enterprises separating from ABC. As anticipated, the prime time programs supply rate from the eight major film studios in Hollywood rose from 39% in 1970 to 70% in 1995. The number of programs, such as quiz and talk shows that were syndicated and sold directly to local TV stations without network mediation, began to grow. On the receiving end, the number of independent stations not affiliated with the networks began to increase alongside this development. Furthermore, independent production companies and syndication enterprises specializing in program marketing and supply also expanded in scale. Underlying the development of the syndication market was, in addition to these institutional developments, the business model of the copyright-owning production companies producing programs at a loss for first-run broadcast on network television. Once the program becomes a hit, these production companies recover their production costs and secure profits through reruns in the domestic market and overseas sales.
The production companies receive licensing fees from the networks in exchange for first-run broadcast rights (including one rerun during the season). However, this does not cover the full production costs. The television networks commonly order 22 episodes of drama or comedy series for one broadcast season starting in late September and ending in late May of the following year. If the program turns out to be a success, orders are placed for consecutive years. The reality is, however, that competition is extremely intense and 90% of new programs are canceled before the new season.
In television program production, the basic definition of a hit series is one that had been broadcast on terrestrial television for more than five years, with the total number of episodes reaching 100. The reason for the number is because local TV stations buying rerun broadcast rights are able to schedule them from Mondays through Fridays, five days a week and during the same time slot. In addition to these local stations, these series can be broadcast repeatedly and for many years in various platforms including cable television and the international broadcast market. Also, there are earnings from home video and DVD sales, as well as instances of successful “spinoffs,” television series that emerge from another hit series — represented by the comedy series Fraser, featuring a character that appeared in the NBC hit comedy Cheers. There are also supplemental revenues from merchandising. Production of a hit series means that the production company holding various rights to the production, including copyright, can not only recover the startup investment but also expect to profit from supplementary sources of revenues. This is often described as similar to hitting a jackpot in a game of roulette. This is the reason driving these companies to compete under the slogan of “content is king,” frantically searching for hits despite the fact that the success rate is low.
As described above, the Fin-Syn Rules contributed to the growth of the television program syndication market, with the shift of power in broadcasting industry from the three major networks to the production companies. In the 1990s, however, this broadcasting industry framework undergoes change with the onset of the age of multi-channel broadcasting.
In 1990, cable TV dissemination rate rose to 53%, and satellite broadcasting had emerged. In face of these developments the prime time viewing rate of the major networks fell to 60%. Furthermore, Fox Television, a subsidiary of News Corp. that was established in 1986 and emerged as the fourth broadcast network, appealed to FCC for exemption from the Fin-Syn Rules. The three major networks opposed this move and organized a lobby aimed at scrapping the rules. The rules were lifted partially in 1991 and were abolished in phases during the period up to 1995. The prime access rule was also scrapped at the same time.
Although the major networks succeeded in bringing a power shift, the change prompted production companies to buy networks as channels for content distribution — represented by the 1996 acquisition of Capital City/ABC by Disney and Viacom’s purchase of CBS in 1999. The industry underwent vertical integration in which one company held the entire distribution segment from program production to terrestrial and cable channels. In addition, media conglomerates possessing publishing arms and theme parks to make use of merchandising began to dominate all rights and revenues.
This trend continues to this day. NBC, which became part of General Electric in 1986, purchased Universal Studios in 2004. However, a purchase agreement was concluded with Comcast, the leading cable television operation in the US, in December 2009, opening up a new age in the US broadcasting industry.
3. The Current State of Foreign Television Programs in the US
Quite a few foreigners satirically describe the United States as “the world’s largest island.” This is due to the fact that the majority of its population has little interest in foreign history and culture. On top of that, there is widespread belief that the US ranks at the top as a political and economic power, with the world’s best social systems and culture.
This is also reflected in TV programming, with virtually no foreign programs, including those produced in its neighboring country Canada, broadcast by terrestrial channels during prime time hours. The only productions that appear in the US are history and drama productions by BBC that does not require dubbing and broadcast on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and subscription-based cable channel HBO. According to Ms. Meryl Marshall-Daniels who is the chair of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the organization created by Hollywood TV producers that sponsors the Emmy Awards granting recognition to outstanding television programming, and also works as a consultant, foreign productions remain “unfamiliar” to US viewers not only because of the differences in cast members and settings but also because of the following distinctive characteristics of American program productions that are not found elsewhere.
They are: (1) American programs have fast-paced plots, because they are centered around the script rather than the actors; (2) lighting is inclined to be bright and strong; (3) the script for an hour-long program assumes 4-5 commercial breaks during the 48th-minute program, with the lines spoken by actors and video cuts calculated with exhaustive detail so that the viewers are not distracted; and (4) plots are planned for successful broadcast and syndication in the future and are written so as not to run out of themes in the event of serialization for many years.
In addition, drama productions for prime time broadcast are photographed in 35mm film, even with the dissemination of the HD camera. Although lighting and depth of view similar to full-length motion picture leads to high production cost, as well as high labor cost, a certain American production industry representative have said that programs filmed with TV camera “make the screen look shallow and flat.” This is the reason why foreign productions look cheap to the American viewers, who are accustomed to television programs similar and quality to high-cost motion pictures.
It has been reported that the presence of popular actors and actresses is important in the so-called “trendy dramas,” with scripts written after the TV network negotiates with the agents and the ranking of the cast members are established. As Chairman Shigemura had pointed out, Japanese actors with a strong sense of presence are necessary in the US, where Japanese celebrities enjoy virtually zero recognition.
The fact that drama productions in Japan are rarely produced and broadcast continually for one season is also an obstacle, discouraging US broadcast stations and distributors who seek syndication in units of 100 episodes. In addition, reruns in the US syndication market require that each episode be basically fully independent in plot, because broadcasters prefer free scheduling, including change in the order of episodes. Japanese drama is inclined to be serialized, with plots developing in the order of episode broadcast, and is believed to be unsuitable for the US market. A solution to this problem may be the production of special drama series, such as mini series consisting of 10 episodes, or packaging in number of programs belonging to similar genres.
4. The Changing Environment
US program developers, in search of new ideas and of ways to cut skyrocketing production costs, have taken interest in foreign programming during the past 10 years. This began with unscripted game and variety shows known as reality TV. In 1999, ABC succeeded with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (Japanese title: Quiz $ Millionaire). In the summer of the following year, CBS landed hits with Survivor and Big Brother, aired during the summer rerun season. These are programs that had been produced and broadcast in the UK, Sweden and Holland. The American networks purchased the program formats and produced their US versions.
This triggered expansion into the area of comedy and drama, with NBC succeeding with The Office in 2005 and ABC with Ugly Betty in 2006. Again, the American networks purchased the plot, scenes and scripts due to the aforementioned circumstances and created US versions, with changes made in the setting, including actors. However, comedy, except for the slapstick type exceeding common sense, cannot cross the boundary of culture so easily. Also, the type of drama that had been accepted is chiefly drama with the comic touch known as dramedy.
When scriptwriters went on strike from November 2007 to February of the following year, right in the middle of the new program planning season for terrestrial channels, the broadcast networks purchased drama formats from English-speaking countries, on grounds that “the language is the same, and plot development is similar” (according to a production business insider), and developed a large number of new programs.
Ultimately, nearly all of them were canceled immediately after broadcast, due to poor viewer ratings. This demonstrated that unplanned, shoddy import is destined to failure.
In Japanese programming, there is interest in its game and variety shows, in addition to animation. Many American viewers are not aware that Pokémon is a Japanese program. Also, the dubbed version of Fuun Takeshi-jo (Takeshi’s Castle) from TBS and Ryouri no Tetsujin (Iron Chef) by Fuji TV Network has been aired in American cable channels. The former appealed to viewers for dubbing that is totally different from the original. In the case of the latter, the type of theme, speed of action, and the dubbed announcer’s voice in the style of a sportscast drew cult following and led to production of a US version. Fuji TV’s quiz show Trivia no Izumi became the basis for the American version MANswers, which is aired since 2007 during late night hours on the cable channel for men, Spike.
Inspired by Japanese obstacle race shows, ABC has broadcast I Survived a Japanese Game Show starting in 2008 and Wipeout as a special summer program. There had been no format purchase for these programs.
However, an internal ABC memo “encouraging reference [to other programs] to the level not violating program copyright” was disclosed, raising concerns among program production people in Japan. Regarding racial and cultural differences, US drama that features ensemble cast, where there are a number of leading characters such as members of a criminal investigation team, medical team, school or aircraft passengers, commonly include not only Caucasians but also African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians (mostly Korean and Chinese). Still, resistance toward a nonwhite principal character appears to persist. The producer of the popular drama series broadcast on Fox TV had admitted that, in the event of joint drama production between Japanese and American capital, “there is possibility of drama featuring a white leading character with a Japanese companion and location filming both in the US and Japan, but the opposite is unthinkable.” American viewers are known to dislike captions. However, some believe that it is no longer a serious problem as in the past due to the improved resolution of the television receiver. The number of captioned programs are increasing in cable channels that feature overseas productions, including independent films.
5. Recommendations on Export of Japanese Dramas to the US and its Future Issues
“Television programs are not art or culture but are products first,” said Ms. Meryl Marshall mentioned earlier, emphasizing that US broadcasters are always business-minded. Program purchasing from overseas is not an act of goodwill to promote culture. Unless they bring profits, American buyers showed no interest. Export of Japanese television dramas is not easy but not impossible. The most important is that the producer must be fully aware from the planning stage of the fact that the program must become a “product” that is attractive in the target US market. Although the script is regarded most important in the US, Ms. Marshall stated that it is possible to attract the interest of American buyers with themes and genres that spotlight leading representatives of Japanese pop culture, such as Takashi Murakami who is well known in the United States, as well as famous fashion designers represented by Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, and stereotypical Japanese images of “samurai” and “ninja” and of high technology. Sci-fi, horror and fantasy are also areas where Japanese works are attracting interest.
In the program production stage, recruitment of American staff members is believed prudent for filming and editing, in order to create an American-style visual effect. Furthermore, advertising is as important as the production, which is a “product.” Ms. Marshall reports that BBC had succeeded in entering the US market by implementing a detailed marketing strategy, including hiring American executives with extensive connections in the US broadcasting industry prior to market entry, setting up billboards in New York and Los Angeles for advertising, organizing dinner parties inviting television producers that are key figures in the industry. She commented, “The best possible path is to focus on the target and invest into advertising and to stir buzz among producers, publicity officers, critics and other people in the industry through word of mouth.”
Because of the high export value of American-made TV programs and films as products, the US government has never encouraged export from the standpoint of cultural exchange or economic development, except for addressing the problem of pirated copies. Ms. Marshall proposes that JAMCO or other organizations promoting broadcast programs organize conferences lasting 2 or 3 days in Los Angeles and Tokyo, inviting top executives of Hollywood production studios, prominent producers and agents to view and discuss Japanese programs, as a way to revamp awareness of TV production representatives both in Japan and the US and to conduct research on the US market. It may be more of a customized form of the International Drama Festival in Tokyo.
She has also suggested purchase of prime time slots for up to a week at a digital cable channel where time lease fee is relatively low, for broadcast of several programs. Another alternative is to make use of the digital platform for experimental showing of programs and video clips on the Internet.
Because the US market poses no problem concerning the price gap that is found when exporting to developing nations, Japanese productions are able to compete with market prices. Considering the strong commercial mindset of the US market, exporting Japanese TV dramas to the US may become a reality with supply of products that meet market demands and determined to make long-term investments until a hit program emerges.
Chizuko Muranaka Broinowski
Journalist, writer & director with Integral Media
Born in 1966 in Kamakura, she graduated from the College of Liberal Arts, International Christian University and earned MBAs in Communication and International Journalism at the University of Leicester and City University London. After working with Sony Corp., the Yomiuri Shimbun's London International Press Centre and its English-language daily paper and the New York head office of Fuji Sankei Communications International, she became freelance in 2009. She has written magazine columns on the media and society and culture. Her works include "Nyuu-yookaa wa doko made gouyoku ka" (How Greedy Can New Yorkers Be), Fusosha Publishing, 2009.