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Editorial: The power of television still strong despite smartphone era

Since the middle of the previous Heisei era (1989-2019), it has become common for people to gaze at their smartphones on trains. Many of them use the popular free messaging application Line, while others enjoy films or dramas on their devices.

The spread of the internet has dramatically changed the relationship between people and the media. In particular, the environment surrounding television that has about a 60-year history is undergoing revolutionary changes.

Public broadcaster NHK began Japan's first television broadcast in 1953. The use of TV rapidly spread among the public after the live broadcast of the wedding parade of Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko, who were then crown prince and crown princess, in April 1959.

Television has provided entertainment, information and culture to the public and connected the world with images in real time. There is no doubt that television has had a huge influence on society.

However, now deceased commentator Soichi Oya warned that television could "make all 100 million Japanese people idiots by reducing their ability to imagine and think."

Still, there were many hit programs, such as "Hachiji Dayo! Zenin Shugo (It's 8 o'clock! Everybody gather)" and "Oretachi Hyokinzoku (We're a droll tribe)" during the Showa era (1926-1989) and "Susume! Denpa Shonen (Giddyap! Radio wave boys)" and "Mecha Mecha Iketeru! (Very, very cool!)" during the Heisei era. Therefore, television has been a source of culture for children and youths.

Broadcasters have played a role of creating interesting and unique programs based on producers' free thinking beyond the box, influencing social trends.

Television has also helped shape the ideal form of Japanese families. Members of a Japanese family often surrounded a television set and engaged in conversations.

However, with the advent of smartphones, the media has become something that individuals enjoy by themselves rather than with their families. As a result, the Japanese culture of families watching TV together and chatting in their living rooms has waned.

In particular, television has lost its popularity among younger generations. A survey that NHK conducted in 1970 on people's lifestyles showed that the average time Japanese people spent watching TV per day was approximately 180 minutes. However, the figure has declined to 159.4 minutes, according to a survey by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in 2017.

In particular, the figures for those aged 10 to 19 and 20 to 29 came to 73.3 minutes and 91.8 minutes, respectively. In contrast, people in these demographics spent 128.8 minutes and 161.4 minutes, respectively, using the internet on their smartphones, tablets and other computers.

This tendency is obviously related to the social trend of becoming introverted. More deplorable problems than just television's loss of popularity among younger generations appear to lie in such social trends.

Rapidly growing online video distribution services that started in Japan in 2015 -- including those provided by U.S. firms Netflix, Inc. and Amazon.com, Inc. -- have contributed to the decline in television's popularity. The online domestic video distribution market is estimated to be worth nearly 200 billion yen.

The high-speed, large-capacity 5G mobile communication system will be fully launched in spring 2020. As the government is promoting the integration of broadcasting and communications, NHK is poised to begin online streaming of all its programs simultaneously with their broadcasting as early as this fiscal year. Commercial broadcasters are also providing smartphone streaming services for their popular programs. The use of the internet is a trend of the times.

Commercial broadcasters are struggling to develop new business models as the relative popularity of television is declining. Unlike NHK that is supported by subscription fees from viewers, commercial broadcasters rely on advertising fees from sponsors.

According to advertising giant Dentsu Inc., online advertising fees posted double-digit growth for five consecutive years to reach some 1.76 trillion yen in 2018, close to the about 1.79 trillion yen paid for commercials aired on terrestrial TV. The figure for online advertisements is expected to surpass that for terrestrial TV as early as this year. Under the circumstances, it is only natural that television program producers have a growing sense of crisis.

While NHK is taking advantage of its huge subscription fee income to create high-quality dramas and variety shows, some have pointed out that programs aired recently by commercial terrestrial TV stations have become boring. However, private terrestrial TV stations are producing some programs abound in ingenuity despite limited production costs. It is not true that commercial broadcasters have lost their progressive spirit.

For example, "Potsunto Ikkenya (A lone house)" broadcast by TV Asahi and its affiliate as well as "Ie Tsuiteitte Ii Desuka? (Can I follow you to your home?)" by TV Tokyo and its network are popular variety shows with a documentary touch. They shed light on one aspect of modern Japanese society by focusing on the reality of people on the street.

These innovative programs have departed from the traditional style of variety shows that relied on celebrities, and have won support from viewers.

Tsutomu Konno, 83, director and supreme adviser at TVMan Union, Inc. who can recall the beginning of the television age, says, "Television is part of popular culture that is a kind of show. It doesn't have to be art."

Smartphones are undoubtedly convenient as communication tools. However, there are things that cannot be conveyed by anything other than the power of TV images. Television still has a potentially bright future.

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