A hot topic among Japanese TV professionals is how to gain audiences’ sympathy. In Japan, gaining sympathy is a key to producing a successful TV show. For instance, the drama Hanzawa-Naoki, that featured a Japanese banker’s life, elicited strong sympathy in viewers over a wide range of generations, and the show achieved incredibly high viewing figures. I am going to address what Japanese producers think about sympathy in relation to some recent TV shows and my experience in my daily production work.

Recently, many Japanese TV professionals have been paying attention to the different approaches toward disabled people exemplified by two TV shows: 24 Hour TV from Nippon TV, a Japanese commercial channel, and BariBara from NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster. 24 Hour TV is a very successful charity live show in which all the presenters wear the same yellow T shirt with logo. The show is actually 24 hours long and focuses on disabled people’s lives. This annual show started in 1978 and it has provided Japanese audiences with impressive documentaries, human dramas and entertainment that are supportive of disabled people. This charity show earned a very good reputation, and many Japanese people seem to feel sympathetic toward the show because it raises a lot of money for charity. I have no doubt about its social role, because it has highlighted many social issues and exposed many little-known truths regarding people with disabilities and people living with incurable diseases. One of the popular segments of 24 hour TV is the 100 km run, in which a celebrity runs 100 km within the 24-hour duration of the live show, ending with a very moving finish-line scene. It seems fair to say that with such heartwarming content, and its slogan, “Love saves the Earth”, 24 Hour TV intentionally attempts to gain audience sympathy through the impression it creates in viewers.

On the other hand, Baribara (which stands for “Barrier-free Variety”) is a 30-minute show in which disabled people themselves present details of their daily lives and discuss controversial problems in their lives, such as with love and sex. Even in dramatized segments in the show, most of the roles are acted by the disabled presenters themselves. For example, the show became famous for a dramatization in which a schizophrenia patient played the part of a schizophrenia patient. According to its web site, BariBara produces its content with laughter and without taboos, so one may say that it gains audience sympathy through honesty.

An interesting thing happened on August 28th this year, the second day of 24 hour TV. While 24 Hour TV was still on-air, BariBara broadcast a special “inspirational” edition with cast members wearing yellow T-shirts very similar to those worn on 24 Hour TV. BariBara attempted to reveal the actual thoughts of disabled people by interviewing a protagonist of a typical documentary on disabled people. It argued that most such documentaries have a fixed structure and the protagonists tend to be asked to act as the director expected. BariBara described this situation with a comical narration and a brutally honest interview. The main theme of the episode was whether content about disabled people needs to create a powerful impression or not. BariBara addressed this question referring to Stella Young’s 2014 TED speech entitled “I’m not your inspiration”. As regards viewing figures, more people watched 24 Hour TV than BariBara, but I saw many professionals supporting BariBara on Twitter and Facebook.

This kind of direct contrast between two programmes may be rare, but it has proved very thought-provoking for Japanese producers. There may be many approaches to gaining sympathy from audiences, but we need to catch up with what else audiences feel. At least we need to learn that what audiences feel sympathy with is changing.

I usually produce a daily studio live show which provides a housewife-centered viewer demographic with well-being information. This show mainly carries lifestyle information about such things as health care, cooking and medical topics, so providing useful information to audiences might seem to be enough for this show. However, whether the general outline or brand of the show gains sympathy or not affects each viewer’s rating of the show.

To build a programme brand, Japanese producers need to be sensitive to sympathy. For the purpose of updating strategies, Japanese producers sometimes conduct market research. For example, I did a focus group interview with four groups of six women in our target generation from 35 to 45 years old. From every such research result, we find suggestions for some unique selling propositions and sometimes, weak points of our production. In Japan, the marketing business within the media industry may grow up in the near future.

Satoru Watanabe is one of MIPBlog’s pre-MIPCOM/MIPJunior Ambassadors – check out all of their posts here – who are coordinated by consultant Debbie Macdonald.

Find out more about Japan, MIPCOM 2016 Country of Honour, here.

Top photo: © Getty Images / Robert Daly 

About Author

Satoru Watanabe is a producer for Japanese national broadcaster NHK's Home & Food Programmes Division.

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