East meets West as Japan opens its Treasure Box

The double whammy effect of not importing formats and lengthy primetimes filled with original shows means Japanese broadcasters are prolific producers of entertainment series. Takeshi’s Castle, Dragon’s Den, America’s Funniest Home Videos and Iron Chef are huge properties that originated in Japan, but the number of hit international formats is small in proportion to the number of original shows. That is set to change as Japanese broadcasters start to incorporate Western elements in their shows and as the country’s programme makers join forces with their Western counterparts.



Japanese broadcasters plan ‘Treasure Box’ event for MIP TV

Wall to Wall making UK version of a TV Asahi show

FremantleMedia making three Japanese-inspired pilots a year

New wave of Japanese shows includes Ninja Warrior and Exit

Hole in Wall & Boxing Glove merged to create a single show

Japan is the second largest TV market in the world, lagging only the US in terms of ad revenue. While it remains incredibly hard to sell in to, it is a creative powerhouse, albeit one that does not export as heavily as the US, UK or other key territories that rely on shows working in more than their domestic market.

Mindful of increased competition from other Asian territories, the public broadcaster NHK and its commercial counterparts Nippon TV (NTV), TV Asahi, Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS), TV Tokyo, Fuji TV and Asahi Broadcast Corporation joined forces at MIPCOM to showcase their formats in an initiative dubbed Treasure Box Japan. It was backed by the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Communications and Economy, Trade and Industry, which are both keen to bolster the presence of the country’s creative industries.

“It was about focus,” says one international executive who attended the MIPCPOM event. “Instead of spending five or ten minutes thinking about Japanese formats, the people there had three or four hours of watching and talking about them.”

“There are points to be improved upon because it was the first time we did this, but overall it was a positive experience,” says Makito Sugiyama, chief of international programme sales at Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS).

“I think we can call it a success,” adds Yasuo Kawashima, general manager, content business division, TV Asahi Corporation. “As it was the first attempt of this kind that Japan has undertaken, it attracted a great deal of attention both internationally and domestically. It was often brought up in our MIPCOM business meetings and all the companies succeeded in getting new customers and new offers as a result.”

Kawashima is realistic about when the positive press and buzz will pave the way for concrete deals. “As the realisation of actual format sales takes time, the tangible results in figures will appear a year or two later,” he says.

The group of broadcasters are expected to organise another event for MIP TV and specifically MIP Formats.

“As the realisation of actual format sales takes time, the tangible results [of Treasure Box] in figures will appear a year or two later.” Yasuo Kawashima, general manager, content business division, TV Asahi Corporation.

Unlike Western entertainment shows that routinely feature regular members of the public, Japanese formats tend to feature well-known faces. Accordingly talent agencies play a crucial role in getting programmes made. The Japanese broadcasters also work with agents to broker deals for their content internationally. TV Asahi, for example, uses William Morris Endeavor to make client introductions in the US and UK. The talent agents are also linking Western producers and distributors with their Japanese counterparts.

Yoshimoto is Japan’s biggest agent and is also a producer. It counts Fuji, NTV, TV Asahi, TBS, TV Tokyo and Asahi among its shareholders and has a deal with the broadcasters under the terms of which it will make a pilot for each of them annually. It is playing an integral role in linking partners from the East and West.

Time Scoop Hunter

Yoshimoto has already recruited international producers including IAC’s Notional and Craig Piligian’s Pilgrim Films to make pilots. Zig Zag was the first UK partner, making gameshow format Time Out for regional broadcaster KTV. As well as getting a broadcast pilot on air in Japan, the UK indie simultaneously shot a UK version of the show, in which contestants compete challenges against a plethora of wacky timing devices. It cast English contestants living in Japan and says that the BBC and Channel 4 in the UK are interested and it will now pitch it in the US.

Yoshimoto will make another batch of pilots next year and Zig Zag will again make one of the projects. Working in Japan has opened other doors for the UK indie and it has optioned NTV’s physical gameshow format Exit in the US and UK and it is now being made for US cable net Syfy. Zig Zag then got Eccho Rights (fka Sparks Network) involved, which optioned it to All3Media-owned German production company MME Entertainment, French production company Elephant Group, Channel Peretz in Russia, OWT in Sweden and Flare Media in the Netherlands.

Yoshimoto’s US division was behind another East-meets-West collaboration, Spinsanity. The one-hour shiny-floor show was co-created by Yoshimoto USA, NTV and Howard Schultz’s Lighthearted Entertainment, and came out of a co-development deal between Lighthearted and NTV. It is being distributed by Banijay International, which has an English-language pilot.

Company managing director Karoline Spodsberg says: “We’ve seen several of these cooperation efforts between American or UK and Japanese companies and the result can be the combination of extreme, colourful, highly creative Japanese shows with a Western approach. That mix is fairly strong.”

Eccho Rights managing director Fredik af Malmborg says the production scene in the Europe is one reason that Japanese formats are enjoying renewed success. “The underlying reason is that in the West things are so consolidated with the super indies that fewer original formats are developed. When there is one large consolidated group, the reality is that there is less creativity. There is very little innovation in the European and US TV markets at the moment.”

Banijay has also achieved the rare feat of selling a format into Japan, shopping French-originated daytime show Hold on to Your Seat to NHK, which greenlit a 150-episode series.

Yoshimoto, meanwhile, has also inked a deal with US digital producer NextTime Productions and they are making a Japanese version of the digital series EpicMealTime as part of a wider co-development deal.

Of the Hollywood studios, Warner Bros. is the most active in terms of working with Japanese partners. It has an ongoing deal with TV Asahi and will make one pilot a year, for three years, based on the Japanese broadcaster’s IP. Warner Bros. sells the resulting content internationally and Asahi shops it in Asia.

The Boxing Glove

Warner Bros.’ first Asahi-based pilot has been made. Everything’s a Race has been worked up by its US production unit Warner Horizon. The next project will be made by Warner’s Wall to Wall says Andrew Zein, senior VP, creative, format development and sales at Warner Bros. International Television Production. The UK producer will make a full half-hour pilot of an as-yet-unspecified Asahi quiz show that has been a big hit in Japan.

The ingenious and outlandish nature of some Japanese entertainment formats means they get many hits on YouTube, helping to bring the ideas to international audiences, but often viewers will be completely unaware they are watching a Japanese show once it has been reformatted for the West.

“The use of graphics in Japanese shows is far greater than in the UK for example, but I see that as a detailed production issue,” says Andrew Zein. “The storytelling, gameplay or spine of the show is generally the same in terms of execution so only a limited amount of adaptation is needed. We have moved a long way from Endurance and electrodes in underpants.”

TV Asahi’s own format successes to date include studio panel show Ranking the Stars and 31 Legged Race, in which kids compete in a giant three-legged race. Both have sold well in Asia. At MIPCOM it launched The Blocks, a physical gameshow using blocks and boxes and hidden camera show Fake Dad in which a fake dad tests a boyfriend’s commitment to his daughter.

It also launched The Dinner Table at the market, which strays from the gameshow path and is a reality format in which a family is brought back to the dinner table for family meals for 100 consecutive nights.

Asahi’s Kawashima says: “I don’t think we can quite say that there is “renewed” interest at this point but there is a rising demand for formats globally and we feel that Japanese formats are in fact as we call it a “treasure box” which will become the focus of interest and attention in the near future.”

For public broadcaster NHK and its production and commercial arm NHK Enterprises (NEP), there have been a handful of format deals, such as optioning On Air Battle in the US and shopping Fun Fun Studio, the longest running kids show on NHK in Japan, to Taiwan. Formats distribution is, however, a relatively new area. About 10% of the latest catalogue is formats.

Ninja Warrior

Other Japanese-originated kids shows that have broken out include TBS’s Brain Survivor, which is big on Nickelodeon where it is known as Brain Surge. It was reformatted for its third season as Family Brain Surge and another TBS format, quiz show Get 100, ran on CBBC in the UK.

“Finished programmes such as documentary, drama and children’s content has been and will still be our leading products. However, ‘localisation’ has become the keyword for the recent market, and the requests from worldwide encouraged us to develop formats from our programmes,” says Fumio Narashima, executive controller general, international sales, at NEP’s international business group. “The Treasure Box initiative was a great opportunity for us to create new networks with global partners, and it will help us introduce to them more of our formats.”

NHK’s key formats include detective-style quiz show Doctor G’s Case File in which contestants compete to diagnose patients based on their symptoms. It also has Time Scoop Hunter and Socrates’ Human Resources, in which celebrities answer unusual job interview questions. It won third place at the EBU’s Eurovision Creative Forum in Berlin, earlier this year.

Its big format for next year’s MIP TV will be Pikatch, a family gameshow that has just launched in NHK’s Saturday night primetime and in which two teams challenge several guessing games through motion capture, shadow pantomime and sculpture-making.

TBS has been selling formats longer than the other Japanese broadcasters and says that over half of its international revenue today comes from format sales. It uses US-based Bellon Entertainment as its formats distribution partner. It has pioneered the sale of Japanese IP to international territories with its Waku Waku Animal Land, landing on ABC back in 1987, paving the way in 1998 for the same broadcaster to take a local version of Fun TV with Kato-chan and Ken-chan, which became America’s Funniest Home Videos. It started airing in 1989 and the 500th installment recently went out on the US broadcast net.

Its US success has continued with Ninja Warrior and it is now seeking to roll out the show in Europe. Ludo Poppe’s Eccholine will be working with TBS on the Japanese launch. The series, which challenges contestants to the complete the world’s toughest obstacle course, airs on Comcast’s cable channel G4 in the US and a version has also aired on its broadcast network stable mate NBC. In Asia, the show, known in Japan as Sasuke, has aired in Singapore and Malaysia.

“It did well in the US and now that’s being followed up on,” says Bellon Entertainment’s Greg Bellon. “There was a groundswell in the US where it started on G4, became a hit and is now close to being a household name. The fact it was on NBC really raises its profile.”

“Japanese broadcasters have an amazing ability to come up with random ideas. Sometimes they are not fully formed and could be just a segment in a Japanese show and that’s the challenge, to make a format that lasts for 30 minutes or an hour.” Paul O’Hanlon, managing director, FremantleMedia Asia.

TBS and Eccholine will jointly market a European version of Ninja Warrior with TBS providing the rights and knowhow. Eccholine will be providing production expertise. The partners said the plan includes a “mobile casting course” that will comprise nine obstacles and travel from city to city.  The taping from each city will produce a week’s worth of stripped episodes culminating in a primetime show crowning the city’s champions.

Ninja Warrior was part of a copyright infringement case between TBS and Endemol and ABC, which was instigated in 2008. The Japanese broadcaster alleged there were similarities between Wipeout and its shows including Takeshi’s Castle and Ninja Warrior. The case was settled out of court last year.

Zodiak Media has a co-development deal with regional broadcaster ABC and FremantleMedia is another Western company working with a Japanese broadcaster, in its case Fuji.  The pair have co-developed Total Blackout and FremantleMedia has sold Hole in the Wall to over 40 territories. As with many ideas from Japan, the show was a segment on a Japanese variety show and FremantleMedia worked it up into a fully-fledged show.

“Japanese broadcasters have an amazing ability to come up with random ideas,” says Paul O’Hanlon, managing director, FremantleMedia Asia. “Sometimes they are not fully formed and could be just a segment in a Japanese show and that’s the challenge, to make a format that lasts for 30 minutes or an hour.”

The deal is non-exclusive and Singing Bee creator The Phil Gurin Company also has a co-development agreement with Fuji. The pair have two projects underway, Objects of Desire, a Japanese-inspired dating format, and League of Extraordinary Teams, in which teams from around a given country compete in a studio-based show to be crowned national champion.


FremantleMedia, meanwhile, has now combined Hole in the Wall with another Fuji format, Boxing Glove. The boxing glove of the title knocks the contestant into the water if they fail to correctly answer a question. It has outperformed The Voice on Channel 7 in Thailand, where the show launched and FremantleMedia will now start selling it region-wide.

The Western company is also developing original ideas for Fuji as part of the deal. O’Hanlon says: “I want to do at least two or three pilots a year. Fuji is very open-minded to us taking their ideas and taking them further while other format owners are very sensitive about what you do with their brands.”

While the trend in the West is for formats with a narrative such as Got Talent or Strictly, the Japanese formats are still in many cases focused on games. Visually a major difference is the layers of on-screen graphics – “Often you can’t see the wood for the trees,” says one exec. Keen to adapt its formats for international markets, NTV, following an introduction by Pippa Lambert at the ICM agency, recruited the services of UK-based Grand Scheme. The pitching and development consultants duly helped it make its formats ready for the international market ahead of MIPCOM.

“Japanese shows are most successful when they break the trend; everyone else is looking left and they look right. But there is an influence from the West and they are producing programmes with more Western elements. In the future you’ll see more combinations of the tension points of Western shows and the creativity you expect from Japan.” Greg Bellon, Bellon Entertainment

“We wanted to help them make their programme ideas as accessible as possible,” says Grand Scheme partner, Mark Robson. “They needed the ability to let people know what their ideas were quickly and simply.” It worked on NTV’s Brain Games and Quiz 80, which was reformatted for the international market as We Know What You Know.

If they are visually very different, Japanese broadcasters are starting to introduce some Western sensibilities in their own shows. Grand Scheme is now working with NTV ahead of production of one of its new Japanese shows and it is feeding in experience from the West.

The mix of Japanese originality and Western production techniques will mean more exports of Japanese shows, say Robson: “Japan will become a major creative force internationally. The broadcasters embrace new ideas and I also admire the way that they will reformat something when it is on air, when it’s on air. Over here, that’s usually it, the format is fixed.”

“Japanese shows are most successful when they break the trend; everyone else is looking left and they look right,” says Greg Bellon. “But there is an influence from the West and they are producing programmes with more Western elements. In the future you’ll see more combinations of the tension points of Western shows and the creativity you expect from Japan.”

The success of TV projects from Japan in the West relies on the getting the right mix of creativity and production sensibilities that buyers expect. “When something from Japan works it is because it is innovative,” says Bellon. “But it is about putting that creativity in a formula that Westerners will believe in and with which they will want to experiment.”

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