The Revolution Will (Likely) Not Be Televised

Japanese TV stations and the Internet do not get along. I know this must certainly be the case in other countries around the world, but in the past few years there has been a huge success wave in other markets to integrate programs “beyond the box” using the Internet and delivering content in formats demanded and used extensively by their audiences.

In Japan, this hasn’t happened. TV shows do not have online sites that go beyond offering show/cast information and show times (NHK is the only broadcaster to offer preview video content). Of the networks, Fuji TV offers pay per view of individual episodes available for your PC, at a fairly substantial 420 yen/episode viewing price. Web-exclusive content is pretty much non-existent. And the most common TV viewing “application” on the iTunes and Android markets are a bemusing number of “TV Guide” listing applications.

A Quick Primer on the TV landscape in Japan

To understand Japanese TV and its reluctance to adopt the Internet or other digital platforms, it’s important that I share some background. In Japan, cable/satellite failed to penetrate a large share of Japan’s 48 million TV households resulting in a small, niche audience. There are a number of reasons for this, with the end game being that the smaller, fragmented audiences garnered by cable/satellite never lured advertising dollars away. Essentially, there is no true multi-channel universe in Japan: there are less than half a dozen major private for-profit broadcasters (Fuji TV, Tokyo Broadcast System, Nippon TV, TV Tokyo, TV Asahi) operating alongside NHK, the national broadcaster. Those channels dominate the TV landscape – and they have done so with an offer that has basically remained unchanged since the bubble era. This has created a unique culture around video production in Japan – consumers view video content creation as the sole domain of the TV stations produced by a powerful and famous few. And it fuels its aura of power and wonder.

TV Meets the Internet; Mutual Misunderstanding Ensues

It’s pretty obvious why this is a situation the TV stations don’t want to change. The Internet, which largely got its start on mobiles in Japan, was not a threat to TV at first. However, as users moved to high-speed data, they began to spend more and more time away from the TV, which did get TV channels a bit worried. It pushed them toward creating innovative solutions, but only solutions that kept their business model intact. Want to have TV on your mobile phone? The answer was the world’s biggest rollout of one-seg that allowed people to watch terrestrial TV broadcasts over their mobile phones. Podcasts? Outside of recycling old TBS radio shows, not a single major TV producer has tried to produce one – and this lack of participation, vital in extending content to the web in other countries around the world, doomed this kind of short form content into relative obscurity in Japan. When it came to the Internet, no real efforts were made to partner with the medium.

The wild success of YouTube in Japan would be a point that runs counter to this logic, but ironically it became the third largest website in the country, largely because it was a great place to see short form content online, typically reruns of TV shows from the previous night (downloaded against the will of the TV stations, of course). This month many of the TV stations have finally come on board and developed channels with YouTube, but have limited their presence to nothing more than 30-second previews of their offerings. And they did this despite very strong evidence that Japanese consumers are demanding platform extension and well-produced short form video content for entertainment. Ironically this evidence comes from viewing videos that TV stations can’t get to quick enough for takedown – those videos uploaded by fans enjoy view counts an entire magnitude higher than the official “preview” content.

This void is an opportunity for brands. Japanese users love spending time with short form content on the Internet, and with the major players not filling it with offerings, it offers a chance for brands to step in and compete for users’ time by providing their own. Here are a few ways to approach the Japanese market successfully using the medium:

1)     Avoid the CGM trap. As hinted at earlier, it’s almost a cultural trait that personal creation and production of content doesn’t happen in Japan on any large scale outside of those already in the “tv and talent” system. Brands who try to generate buzz at the behest of “consumer generated content” more than often find themselves disappointed with the results.

2)     Use YouTube at the center of your campaign to entertain. Strike a chord with relevant, entertaining content for your audience that doesn’t require them to do anything other than be entertained first and foremost (i.e., Reebok’s Taikan commerical, a play on Japan’s morning exercises, reached over 2 million views).

3)     Use niche mobile content media platforms. BeeTV, DoCoMo’s mobile/smartphone on demand television station and the newly released Hulu Platform may provide opportunities for those interested in more digital/platform-specific advertising opportunities or content integration. Wii’s “Wii no MA,” The Playstation Network, Tsutaya, and most major TV manufacturers all offer content portals that are well trafficked. If you want to take your content to larger groups of consumers, freebies are an economical way to increase engagement and reach to potential customers.

It will be important to keep a close eye on Japanese TV and content creation/distribution in the coming months – a lot of the prognostications supporting it sound oddly familiar. While it’s true that the major media claimed that the Japanese market is unique – this is an assertion made by those who would have preferred not to see any changes to it in the first place. It’s likely that we start to see demands by consumers to make content and TV more accessibly met.

This pattern has repeated itself in other industries. There was a time when everyone used to think closed-content networks connecting people to a subscription-based “push” system was the way forward, but now direct connection through smartphones has now become the way people are preferring to connect on mobile. The rapid growth of Facebook and the introduction of other “real-name” social networks such as LinkedIn in Japan are providing disruption to how people interact with each other online; in contrast to the stable but static user numbers from incumbent and anonymous SNS Mixi.

If we look at that as a harbinger, we can see that the online video revolution seems set to begin sooner than later.

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