The Asahi National Broadcasting Company, or TV Asahi, as it is more commonly known, is one of Japan's largest national television networks. TV Asahi's largest shareholders are the Asahi Shimbun newspaper; Toei, a television and movie production house; and Obunsha, a publishing company. Because Japanese broadcasting laws prevent the dominant cross-ownership schemes that exist in other industries, none of these companies can be said to control TV Asahi.
A unique provision of Japanese television regulation prevents any network from owning or controlling more than one broadcast station. By contrast, in the United States, broadcast regulations allow networks to operate up to five stations. As a result, network growth in Japan is especially dependent on affiliates, of which TV Asahi has 20, covering 90 percent of Japan's population.
The network was established in November 1957 and was the first to broadcast a combination of educational programming, dramas, game shows, and sports events. A company, Nippon Educational Television (NET), was created to operate the network, funded largely by government money and associated with Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan's largest and most respected newspaper publishing groups.
Much of NET's early staff came from Nikkei Shimbun Toei, a movie company and theater business, and from competing networks. Asahi Shimbun provided NET with several presidents after 1969. On-air personalities were recruited from other broadcasting companies or were developed internally.
NET began broadcasting on February 1, 1959, on a partial schedule, though few families owned televisions at the time. The network's morning programming consisted of children's television shows that concentrated on teaching history, math, language, and science. Afternoon and evening shows concentrated on general audiences with variety shows and other entertainment with broad appeal.
Initially, broadcasting was limited to Tokyo and a few other urban areas. NET became a nationwide commercial network in April 1961, when a web of affiliates was established throughout Japan. Despite its wide coverage, NET was not considered a major network primarily because there were few VHF stations operating at the time that were able to cover areas outside Tokyo.
Japan's other networks made the conversion to color broadcasting between 1960 and 1965. In order to avoid being relegated to a minor status, NET began color broadcasting in November 1967. During this period, NET altered its programming to expand its entertainment and variety shows and began including as many commercials as other stations. The network also began Japan's first live morning news show, which ran from 1965 to 1993.
NET remained on the forefront of technological advances during the 1960s through its daily live satellite feeds from the United States for its Morning Show, which enabled NET to create a commercially competitive news division. Rather than merely read the news from America, or wait more than a day for film footage to arrive by airplane, NET was capable of running film from America almost as soon as it was shot. In addition, NET established a reputation as the most internationally minded network in the 1960s by acquiring the rights for U.S. boxing championships, the Indianapolis 500, and the Daytona 500. NET's coverage of the Apollo missions were considered Japan's most extensive.
In November 1973 NET was formally licensed by the Post of Telecommunications Ministry as a station of general programs. This designation stiffened competition with Japan's other large networks: Fuji Television, Tokyo Broadcasting, and Nippon Television.
In April 1977, NET concluded an exclusive deal to broadcast the Moscow Olympics in 1980. This was a major coup for NET, which invested heavily in the competition. Unfortunately, six months before the Olympic games, Soviet troops occupied Afghanistan. In protest, the United States, Japan, and several other countries boycotted the competition. Since the Japanese athletes were not present, the network's coverage of the Olympics was a commercial failure.
A month after its successful bid to cover the Olympics, NET changed its name. As part of an effort to lose its association with educational television and adopt a newer, more commercial image, NET became the Asahi National Broadcasting Company.
"Asahi" is a popular corporate name in Japan. In addition to Asahi Shimbun, there is an Asahi Brewery and Asahi Pentax. None of these companies are related; Asahi means "rising sun." The name Asahi was chosen for NET primarily because of the company's close association with the Asahi Shimbun.
The newspaper had become increasingly involved in the network, particularly during its conversion into a general audience commercial network. More than just another medium of communication, Asahi National Broadcasting had become an important investment and a valuable source of earnings for the newspaper.
In October 1977, TV Asahi, as the network was commonly called, had enormous success with its broadcast of the American miniseries Roots. Though the network had consistent ratings success in the 1960s with such shows as the U.S.-made Rawhide, The Little Rascals, and TV Asahi's own Morning Show, Roots captivated the Japanese viewing audience and enabled TV Asahi to trounce its competitors in the ratings.
Asahi's programming formula remained the same for the remainder of the 1970s and well into the 1980s. Some of the most expensive shows produced by Japanese networks were TV Asahi's traditional Japanese dramas or "Samurai Dramas" (though the name was misleading). In general, most commercial stations of the day lacked the budget to produce their own high-cost shows and thus many programs were imported from the United States.
In April 1982, TV Asahi concluded a deal to air news programs from the U.S.-based Cable News Network (CNN). The Japanese language version of CNN proved successful and provided incentive for Asahi to develop additional news porgrams of its own. More than a year later, in October 1985, TV Asahi hit the airwaves with News Station, a revolutionary show with a unique approach to the news. After considering several anchormen, the show's creator, Kyuemon Oda, decided that conventional news readers were merely talking heads and opted for a more dynamic anchor.
The network settled upon Hiroshi Kume, a popular game show host from the TBS network. Casting Kume in this role, it was said, was comparable to asking the often outrageous David Letterman to anchor the NBC News in place of the staid Tom Brokaw. Some network officials seriously doubted whether or not Kume would be able to transfer his popularity from other shows to News Station. Kume was intense and fast-paced. It took many people a long time to get used to his opinionated delivery of the news and quick detours into a talk-show format. But his personality prevailed, and, perhaps because of his unusual style, his popularity began to rise. Though News Station was primarily a traditional news show, each edition included a 15-minute in-depth look at a particular subject drawn from areas as diverse as nature and politics.
Within months News Station became the most popular show in Japan, which some compared to CBS Television's market-leading program 60 Minutes (whose host Mike Wallace, incidentally, also was once a game show host). News Station buoyed the network and provided it with considerable advertising revenue. These revenues were plowed back into production of the 80-minute news show, further strengthening its position in the market and triggering an intense competition among the major networks for the 10 p.m. slot. In fact, TBS created a copy-cat version of News Station in 1988 using a former NHK anchorperson and was badly defeated; the network cancelled the show within a year.
News Station led TV Asahi to create a string of other news shows around its new flagship series. A powerful line-up of news programs was developed, beginning with a 90-minute show at 5:30 a.m., a half-hour update at 11:30, and a standard format 60-minute evening news program at 6 p.m., followed by News Station at 10. The rapid expansion of news coverage further allowed TV Asahi to develop strong links with CNN, which had become a highly respected news organization in just a few short years.
TV Asahi hires about 50 new people each year, mostly recent graduates from universities in Tokyo. The network employed 1,350 people by the early 1990s and staffed 23 overseas bureaus that enabled Asahi to cover events almost anywhere in the world. To guard against the development of an entrenched population of employees, TV Asahi did not maintain regular employment contracts with its employees. A great many staff members were technically freelance writers, production assistants, camera operators, and other workers, whose contracts could be terminated almost immediately.
Along with the the newspaper organization Asahi Shimbun, the television and film production house Toei was also a major investor in TV Asahi. Through the Toei, Sochiku, and Toho film companies, TV Asahi became a partner in several film projects, including Shochiku's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, starring British singer David Bowie. After a banner year with films in 1985, TV Asahi broke even in 1986. But, as its investment in the production industry has increased, TV Asahi's returns also have grown.
Another popular show, Tetsuko's Room, began airing in 1975. An afternoon talk show, Tetsuko's Room is hosted by former actress Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. Like Kume, Kuroyanagi was a dynamic and unconventional host who had discussed moving or taboo subjects with over 1,500 Japanese and foreign guests by the early 1990s.
Other successful programs have included prime-time detective series, which have garnered 25% of the country's ratings, as well as Saturday evening feature-length dramas that have reached 26-28% of the audience. Considering competition from eight channels and three satellite channels, these ratings are impressive.
Similar to the now-defunct practice in the United States in which one sponsor would purchase all the advertising slots in a given show, TV Asahi's News Station's advertising is bought by Dentsu. In order for an advertiser to receive airtime on the show, it has to go through Dentsu for its ads. Since many Japanese corporations simultaneously use 2 or more advertising agencies, this is not considered an unusual practice. Through this system, Dentsu, who co-created the show with TV Asahi, takes sole responsibility for finding the show's sponsors.
In April 1989, after building a heliport and employing helicopters for news gathering, TV Asahi began satellite news gathering (SNG) to facilitate live feeds between the company's studios at Roppongi in Tokyo and news bureaus throughout the country. SNG has helped the network reach mountainous and rural areas of Japan; it has also facilitated much of their news gathering. In August 1991, TV Asahi began using A-Star, a trans-Pacific satellite owned by Intelsat.
While TV Asahi maintains 20 affiliates in Japan, its competitors operate as many as 30 affiliates each, affording them greater market penetration. In an effort to cater to the English-speaking segment of the market in Japan, TV Asahi became involved in a cable television venture called Japan Cable Television, or JCTV. JCTV was established to pipe English-language and other special programming to hotels and other large customers. As pay-per-view and other programming began to develop, cable service was expanded to the residential market.
JCTV's penetration remains low, however, and is not likely to grow substantially, despite the rise of satellite-based direct broadcast systems, which were introduced in Japan in 1991. This may be due in part to the fact that there is no market for culturally targeted programming because Japan is culturally homogeneous. More likely, the less than stellar growth is because of the technical difficulties of outfitting large cities like Tokyo with cable systems and extending service to highly mountainous areas.
In preparation for direct broadcasting, in which signals are beamed directly from satellites to viewers' televisions, TV Asahi has laid its own plans for the new medium. An existing system reserves two channels for the non-profit NHK network, while a third is controlled by Japan Satellite Broadcasting, a consortium of 195 companies in which TV Asahi is a participant. In the future, as capacity is expanded, TV Asahi is likely to apply for its own direct broadcast channel.
With direct broadcasting, JCTV is likely to be relegated to an all-premium-channel format in order to remain profitable. With capacity for many channels, viewers may be given the option of using JCTV to see non-broadcast movies and specials, much as HBO and Showtime operate in the United States. With five major networks already in operation in Japan (including NHK), TV Asahi remains the smallest of the commercial operations. News Station, however, remains immensely popular.