Japan’s unique TV ecosystem is drawing global attention from those looking for new ideas and fresh IP. Nick Edwards explores how partnerships are flourishing
Japan’s TV industry is sometimes referred to as the ‘Galapagos islands’ of the global market. Its thriving local ecosystem is largely independent of the rest of the world yet has spawned a breathtaking amount of breakout format hits, including Dragons’ Den (Nippon TV), Ninja Warrior (Tokyo Broadcasting System) and Total Blackout (Fuji TV/Fremantle), to name just a few.
Whilst scripted has not travelled as well (beyond East Asia), largely because of cultural tastes and lower budgets, this is rapidly changing. As this year’s Asia TV Forum gets underway, Japan finds itself becoming one of the world’s most keenly watched global markets.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Japanese TV because the ideas are so fresh and unique,” says Vasha Wallace, EVP of global acquisitions & development at Fremantle, which recently announced a co-development gameshow format deal with Kansai TV. “It’s very different to what you can get anywhere else in the world.”
Michael Nakan, CEO & founder of London-based Envision Entertainment, which co-produced Connected: The Homebound Detective (2022) with Nippon TV this year, believes the same can be said for scripted. “I’ve always had an affinity for Japanese video games, anime, film and TV. The quality of Japanese storytelling is second to none.”
Streaming’s familiar tale
In Japan, like much of the world, the infiltration of international streamers has disrupted audience tastes and eroded legacy outlets’ market share. Japanese companies are now starting to look outwards to the foreign market for international partners in the hope of winning new audiences and to shape content for evolving local tastes.
Against this backdrop, the current global economic situation is creating both opportunities and challenges. On the format front, a global cost of living crisis can be a positive as the escapism they provide is valued more than ever. ”What audiences want is feel-good programming. It’s the same as the financial crisis of 2008,” says Wallace. “The nature of the Japanese market is very family friendly. It’s fabulous, joyous programming. That’s part of the current increased interest,” she explains.
Japan is also a very well drilled incubator of non-scripted shows, which reduces risk for international partners. “They’ll do a lot of test and proof of concept (what we call pilots) – sometimes they’ll do a short run – and Japan has a strong culture of variety shows. Segments that have proved popular are sometimes developed into formats,” says Wallace. Hole In The Wall, which Fremantle acquired in 2007, was originally a 15-minute segment in a variety show and has since been rolled out in around 50 countries.
In scripted, there are fewer upsides to the economic crisis, although as advertising revenues face challenges – thus affecting budgets – Japan’s sector seems well placed to adapt. The market is already characterised by low budgets of between $200,000 to $600,000 an episode, meaning the changes taking place in Japanese scripted look set to weather the severe headwinds.
Japan also has a large population that consumes a lot of media – something US streamers are very much aware of. Research by Ampere Analysis showed that the number of “distinct Japanese live-action scripted TV show titles” available on SVOD’s outside of Japan grew from under 1,000 in 2019 to more than 3,000 in 2022 so far.
Netflix revealed at the end of last year it would add 50 further titles to the 90 that were already available for international audiences to stream, with such activity dovetailing with an uptick in local productions, as well as new international partnerships. Nippon TV, in addition to deals with Netflix, has struck a co-pro deal with Disney. Its streaming service, Hulu, has inked a flurry of scripted co-pro deals and are already onboard with HBO Asia’s Miss Sherlock and Mediapro’s The Head.
Tokyo Broadcasting System, meanwhile, will be working with Netflix to launch two scripted series and is also working with Disney+, Keshet International and Zee Entertainment Enterprises, as well as Korea’s CJ ENM.
And overall, the number of shows being commissioned are up, according to Ampere: its data claims that “the number of brand-new first-run TV shows” announced in 2022 up to October totals 865, surpassing the total number of new shows announced in the entirety of 2021, which was 805.
Responding to the changing environment, Japanese companies, rather than making everything in-house as they have been doing for years, have started to create studio structures in the mould of the UK’s ITV Studios or BBC Studios.
They can now pivot from producing content for their own brands, co-producing, or producing for entirely different Japanese or international outlets. TBS has just established a studio-style outfit, The Seven, that will develop and produce shows for global audiences.
“Show tastes, production budgets and the way we form the production team are all different from what we have done previously,” says Fumi Nishibashi director of business development at The Seven/TBS.
Changes in society are being reflected in locally made narratives. Japan has been criticised by some for being behind western democracies in regard to female equality, but a handful of recent scripted shows with a female point of view have resonated with international markets.
Kansai TV’s Elpis, a crime show that features a lead female character experiencing sexism in the TV industry, not only has a strong female cast, but is led by female producer (Ayumi Sano) and has a female scriptwriter (Aya Watanabe) on board.
Another Kansai production, My Dear Exes (2021), about a 40-year-old multi-divorcee raising her teenage daughter whilst running a construction company, was also produced by Sano and can be streamed on Netflix. And then there’s Nippon TV’s Mother, first produced back in 2010, and about a schoolteacher who responds to an abused child’s cry for help. It is one of Japan’s most successful scripted exports and has been remade in countries including South Korea, France, Thailand, China, Turkey, and this year in Spain by Money Heist broadcaster Atresmedia.
Japan’s most famous export, the illustrative narrative style manga, has also been on a growth trajectory for decades and boomed again during the pandemic. Manga publishers hold some of the worlds most valued IP but the medium lends itself to animation (hence the popularity of its film form ‘anime’) rather than live-action TV series.
But this is also changing. “Thanks to the improvement of VFX technology, more and more manga/anime-based live-action shows have been produced, even with the big spectacular or fantasy titles,” says Nishibashi. Akira Morii, the producer of the manga-based live-action Netflix original Alice In Borderland (2020), has joined The Seven as chief creative officer.
Whilst well known manga/anime IP, such as Dragon Ball, Cowboy Bebop and Spirited Away are examples of its most distinctive form, they are also the tip of the iceberg. Much of the manga canon is far more grounded and recognisable as familiar genres, such as thrillers, romances and traditional drama, which are far more suitable to live-action remakes.
“Our conception of Japanese content will change as different types of anime and manga are becoming popular in the west,” believes Nakan.
The live-action adaption of the manga series Drops Of God (Kami, No Shizuku) that headlined Legendary Entertainment’s scripted slate at this year’s MIPCOM is set in the fine wine industry and nods towards this new trend.
Nakan believes that as ambition for scripted becomes more cinematic, Japanese content will be unleashed to far larger audiences; “Japanese cinema is already recognised as great,” he says, referring to recent Japanese films such as this year’s Oscar-winning film Drive My Car, which starred Toko Miura, who also has a lead role in Elpis. “When cinema and TV collide as it has done in other successful territories, I think the same will happen in Japan,” he adds.
Working with Fremantle’s global network of experienced producers gives Kansai TV, which is part of the Fuji Group, vital insight into what works beyond Japan. “For example, in gameshows our audience doesn’t care so much about the final outcome – who wins and what prize they can take home. But for a gameshow format to be successful internationally, a grand finale is very important. We were advised to create something big and entertaining at the end of the episode,” says Miho Okada, executive managing director at Kansai TV.
Following the incredible success of South Korea’s Squid Game and The Masked Singer, producers are increasingly seeing Japan as the next hotbed of innovative East Asian IP.
To achieve a successful partnership in Japan’s mature format market, Wallace has some best practices: “From the beginning be open, honest and transparent about what you want from each other, and to be clear on who’s going to lead the first production, and then how you’re going to do the international roll-out,” she says.
In scripted there can be a mismatch between what international players expect and what Japanese rights holders want, in terms of global rights, distributors rights, and so on. “It’s definitely not the case of who has the biggest cheque book,” says Nakan. “It’s quite courageous how Japanese companies are resisting the urge from the US market to come in and just take over all the rights to everything.”
In contrast to Korea’s fast, entrepreneurial, individual decision-making nature – something more in line with the American approach, perhaps – Japan is akin to a big ship slowly changing course.
“It’s a consensus-driven culture, that requires respect to be shown, plans to be presented and things to be done in a very structured and reasonable way,” says Nakan, who, along with Nippon TV’s creative director Itaru Mizuno, co-developed Connected over a period of around 18 months (with Sayako Aoki of Nippon TV’s International Business Development, producing).
An English-language version is in the works and other international adaptions are planned. “Big Japanese companies make decisions slowly but when that company starts to move in a direction the whole company moves in that direction. They do what they say and the process is smooth. What I think is exciting about Japan is they’re all starting to move in an international direction.”
* (This data is taken from Ampere’s Commissioning service, which tracks the commissioning and production of original content across the globe through all stages of development, production, and release on a title-by-title level)