This story first appeared in the Oct. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The image around the globe of Japanese TV is often one of wild and wacky programming in which contestants perform bizarre and sometimes stomach-churning tasks in front of shrieking hosts. And yet, unbeknown to many, some of the world's most successful game show franchises are based on Japanese formats.
Executives in Japan's television industry believe many more undiscovered gems in their vaults are ripe for global audiences. It has been many years since a Japanese drama made an impact overseas, and comedy often struggles to cross language and cultural barriers, but game shows can be localized relatively easily.
The format shows no signs of fatigue in Japan, where variety programming dominates ratings in the 7 to 10 p.m. slot known as "golden time." And if the networks can sell a fraction of the ideas in those shows overseas, they might become export earners as big as Sony became with the Walkman.
Now, in an effort to take advantage of the rich potential of programming from its domestic industry, Japan's five major commercial networks (TV Asahi, Fuji TV, NTV, TBS and TV Tokyo) -- along with public broadcaster NHK and regional station Asahi Broadcasting Corp. -- have joined to promote their formats internationally. The Treasure Box Japan venture will launch with a gala Oct. 7 at MIPCOM, where the nets will present a selection of new formats. These include TV Asahi's Stuck Till You're Done, on which contestants are locked in a restaurant and forced to eat until they can identify its 10 best-selling dishes. Then there's Fuji TV's G Wars, which challenges celebrities with everything from "pudding speed-eating" to "candle blowing-out." Meanwhile, NHK provides the more cerebral Doctor G's Case File, on which young doctors must solve real medical problems.
Curiously, one of the first and most extreme Japanese game shows to become famous in the West nearly has been forgotten in its home market, where it never was a hit. Za Gaman (Endurance) exploded onto British screens during the 1980s when footage aired regularly on Clive James on Television, a weekly show dedicated to strange programming from around the globe. The game show featured contestants in a series of ordeals that almost certainly breached the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, the winner being the one able to endure torture the longest.
One memorable episode of Endurance saw participants taken to Egypt, where they were hung upside down in the desert and had scorching sand poured on them. The lucky contestants, still hanging upside down and with cactus plants positioned on either side to stop them from wriggling, then had their nipples roasted by the sun via enthusiastic locals wielding magnifying glasses. A cooling dip in the Nile afterward was marred only by the fact that the survivors were first tied to planks and slathered with fish food.
Although the excesses of Endurance might never be matched -- it holds the title "Most Extreme Game Show" in the Guinness Book of World Records -- the anything-goes attitude of the show remains evident on Japanese TV (and in U.S. programming like Fear Factor).
One reason Japanese programming has such a wealth of format ideas is the way the country's variety shows are structured. "Long-running shows usually have lots of different segments in them, which change regularly," says Yasuo Kawashima, GM of the content business division at TV Asahi. "So there are lots of ideas in each program that can be made into complete shows overseas."
This already has happened with Hole in the Wall (BBC, Fox and China's CCTV), which started as a segment on Fuji TV's variety show Tunnels Thanks to Everybody. And Ranking the Stars, on which celebrities rate one another based on a series of questions, has local versions in the Netherlands, India and South Korea after originally airing on TV Asahi's long-running variety show London Hearts.
The significance of rival broadcasters uniting for Treasure Box Japan hasn't been lost on the government. In light of the country's struggling economy, especially its faltering manufacturing industry, the government is throwing its weight behind taking local formats global. "The government has realized it should support this the way other countries do," says Teruhiko Sato of the content promotion division at the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which backs the initiative alongside the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. "Japan has an advantage in TV formats, and we want to use that."
But the question remains: Will the weird world of Japanese television sell?
Says one veteran European buyer: "In terms of track record, Japanese formats are probably just behind Britain (creator of Idol and X Factor) and the Netherlands (Big Brother, The Voice). But their shows tend to be so strange, or so extreme, a lot of the bigger channels don't want to take the risk in adapting them -- despite the success of adapted Japanese shows like Dragon's Den and Iron Chef."
ASIAN TV FACTS
Indians watch fewer than half the number of minutes of TV each day as Americans do:
- India: 150
- U.S.: 317
By a wide margin, adult programming accounts for the largest percentage of VOD content bought on Japan's biggest cable network, J:COM:
- 38%: Adult nature
- 22%: Anime
- 10%: Foreign films
- 9%: Dramas
- 8%: Japanese films
- 13%: Misc.
86: Number of shows, mostly from India and Japan, shot in Thailand in 2011.