Is Web-based interactive media viable alternative in Japan?

Sunday, February 27 2005 @ 01:23 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

This morning on the TV Asahi's "Sunday Project", founder and CEO of Livedoor Takafumi Horie elaborated some more on what for he is seeking a business alliance with the Fuji-Sankei media group.

While Fuji TV Network has virtually barred him from its studios despite the "lofty mission to serve the public interest" it claims to uphold, the Asahi TV and its affiliates, including the Asahi Shimbun, are the only media group that has sided with the maverick media raider, though in a lukewarm way. It has treated Horie somewhat favorably just because the Fuji-Sankei group and Asahi group are longtime archrivals.

Soichiro Tahara, regular interviewer in "Sunday Project", looks on the surface like CNN's Larry King without a holdup suspender. But in fact he is one of those Japanese interviewers who don't, or can't, represent themselves and keep asking invalid and predictable questions.

Against this backdrop it's no wonder that Tahara couldn't directly strike at the Fuji-Sankei's lofty mission to promote the Imperial system in the morning and disguised prostitution in the evening. Neither could he have a meaningful discussion with Horie over the new business models the CEO of Livedoor seems to be exploring by synergizing the conventional media and the Web-based interactive media because the Japan's Larry King doesn't have the foggiest idea about interactions on the Web in the first place.

Horie, himself, couldn't be very specific on the potentially viable alternative to the conventional media format although I must admit I can't really visualize it, either, as yet. But that's exactly where debates are needed in a real interactive way.

Obviously now we are not talking about Business-to-Consumer E-commerce as we were a decade or so ago. So the Horie's answer was a little irrelevant when Tahara asked him to exemplify what exactly he has in mind for the synergy effects that the convergence between the Web-based media and the conventional media will bring about. He said: "Let's suppose a TV viewer was fascinated by the jacket I'm wearing now, which is fairly unlikely, though. Then he would obviously want to know where he can buy himself the same stuff and at what price, etc. He might even want to place an order with the vendor, while still staying with this 'Sunday Project'." Horie was not really convincing here although Tahara responded with a half-hearted "Hmmm." In another context, he cited the results of a real-time poll a TV show conducted the other day to tell Tahara almost three-quarters of the pollees were in favor of Horie's bid to form an equal partnership with Fuji TV through securing a controlling stake in Nippon Broadcasting System. (See Note below.) But again those TV shows that sometimes conduct a real-time push-poll in the middle of the program, or any other call-in programs, are nothing new and have very little to do with the new media format we are talking about now.

Note: It's telling and noteworthy that according to Horie, a vast majority of younger respondents to that particular question said the Horie's bid didn't make sense at all whereas most pollees in older age brackets viewed it favorably. On the other hand, those old men like Hisashi Hieda, Chairman of Fuji TV, keep saying they don't have the slightest idea of what Horie is talking about. And every time Hieda replays this taped statement, it looks as though he really means it.

Actually in the same February 27 Sunday Project, Tahara also gave an interview to visiting ex-U.S. President Bill Clinton. He asked Clinton a lot of silly, predictable questions. Although we are quite used to hearing Japanese interviewers keep asking silly questions, one of the things I found most unacceptable about his way of interviewing the former president is that he was claiming to represent the entire Japanese people, not the Japan's Larry King himself. For instance, he asked, through an inaccurate interpreter: "We Japanese are really looking forward to seeing Hillary Rodham Clinton become the George W. Bush's successor. How likely do you think it is that this materializes in 2008?" Looking embarrassed, Clinton answered to the effect that Tahara should ask her this question. While Tahara thought he was somehow entitled to represent the entire population of Japan, Clinton didn't even think he was in the position to represent his wife. That's where I would have said: "Hey, Japan's Larry King, what makes you assume you are representing all of us? And why on earth are you asking this question of the wrong person?" Of course I had to swallow down these questions of mine as the CEO of Livedoor took over the interviewee's seat from Clinton.

To summarize the situation we are in, a small number of these media elitists are entitled to represent the entire population in the silliest way whereas it's a no-no for each one of the TV viewers even to represent himself or herself.

The situation with the printed media isn't any better. Many of us have been subjected to the taboo-ridden, or arbitrary at best, letter-screening criteria editors are applying to letters from their subscribers. Take the Daily Yomiuri's way of censorship for example. They say a subscriber's letter should be no longer than 300 characters, it should be double-spaced, the editor is not held accountable to explain the screening criteria to the writer, etc, etc. But on top of that it's obvious that if you are a Japanese subscriber, you'd better forget the idea of writing a letter to the DY because it's a sheer waste of time. For a pathological analysis on their mindset that only foreign readers, except those from the Japan's backyard nations, should be allowed to discuss taboo issues, you may refer to the Sept. 25 TFP story "Charles Robert Jenkins, a deserter or an abductee?". But setting aside the pathology for now, forming an equal partnership with its readership for two-way communication is out of the question from the viewpoint of the DY, whose parent daily The Yomiuri Shimbun boasts an enormous circulation of 10.3 million. The arrogant, and perhaps ignorant, English newspaper doesn't even bother to thank letter-writing subscribers for taking time.

Under the circumstances I am not really optimistic about the viability of Horie's dream, and my own. The necessary technology is already there. But the Web-based technology is nothing more than an enabler. While there's no denying that Takafumi Horie has now started something that is definitely worth a try, early indications we've been seeing in relation to the battle the brave warrior has waged against those who have too much vested interests in the ancient regime are not really encouraging. At least in the next couple of dog years, we solo-bloggers will have a hard time paving the way to a new era of real convergence between the big media organizations and small guys like ourselves. Maybe I am way too optimistic in that respect.

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