By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Arts & Entertainment
In 2009, amidst the confusion of the federal government-mandated switchover to all-digital television broadcasts, The Rafu Shimpo published a lengthy article in hopes of reducing any confusion among viewers.
It would appear that a fair amount of uncertainty and technical issues remains about over-the-air broadcasts, however. Those challenges, combined with declining advertising revenue within the quickly evolving transformation of television itself, is forcing Southern California’s leading provider of Japanese broadcast TV to abandon its 24-hour schedule.
United Television Broadcasting, founded in 1971, has been airing its programs – mostly in Japanese – on digital Channel 18.2 since March 2009, shortly after the end of analog transmissions. For the first time, UTB was not subject to sharing its airtime with other programming in a variety of languages on the anchor station KSCI Channel 18, known as LA18. With its own location on the airwaves, UTB was able to present a full day’s programming tailored to the Japanese and Nikkei communities, including episodic dramas, food and variety shows, and the annual “Kohaku Uta Gassen” music spectacular held every New Year’s Eve..
That 24/7 schedule will end at 11:59:59 p.m. on Sept. 3, with a variety of factors forcing UTB’s hand. Channel 18.2 will go dark on that date, and UTB will return to a very limited broadcast time slot on Sept. 11 – 90 minutes on Sunday evenings at 6:30 p.m., on KCSI Ch. 18.
NHK World, the English-language station from Japan’s national public broadcaster NHK, will continue its round-the-clock schedule on channel 28.4 without interruption. Unlike UTB, however, NHK World is funded by the Japanese government and does not rely on advertising revenue to operate.
Misinformation about DTV a major factor
UTB president Toru Mihara said one of the principal reasons for the the station’s demise is lingering confusion over how digital television works.
“Some people still don’t know what an antenna is,” Miharu lamented, referring to the necessity of having a relatively low-tech antenna connected to allow a television to receive over-the-air signals. “KSCI reaches some 5.5 million homes, but only 14 percent are getting it by antenna.”
Mihara said the confusion over what was once a commonplace component of TV has continued to be somewhat befuddling for viewers.
“When we were kids, everybody’s TV had an antenna, or you could see nothing. Now people are confused. Once they understand how basic and simple it is, they see it’s easy, that they don’t need to be paying for cable.”
While KSCI Channel 18 is carried on most cable and satellite systems, its sub-stations – channels 18.2 through 18.12 and 18.88 – generally are not. Mihara said most of the cable providers in the area have resisted attempts to add the substations to their lineups. Cox Cable, serving customers in parts of Orange County and Palos Verdes, has offered 18.2 as part of its basic package for years, but the station will disappear from those carriers as well.
At the time UTB launched its broadcasts on 18.2, there was a fair amount of manipulation of the term “digital” on the part of the cable companies, leading one veteran broadcast executive to tell The Rafu, “The more people are confused about terrestrial television, the more they think that cable is the answer. That, of course, benefits the cable companies.”
The growing impact of streaming and online content
Since then, of course, television has seen an evolution that continues to change the very definition of the medium. Online and streaming content are posing existential challenges to over-the-air broadcasters and cable/satellite providers alike, as many “cord-cutters” abandon traditional TV in favor watching programs on smart phones and tablets.
“For younger people, watching online is simpler,” Mihara said. “They can watch anywhere, on different kinds of devices, different hardware. Many of our viewers are older and don’t watch TV in that way, and some people like the comfort of sitting in front of a TV.”
Another major transformation of what goes out over the airwaves is under way, this time with far less fanfare than the digital switchover. In 2009, few in the U.S. Congress could have foreseen the explosion in demand for bandwidth needed to carry not only television broadcasts, but other types of signals as well – namely, those required for cell phones and wireless devices.
Last June, the Federal Communications Commission obtained control of more than $86 billion worth of wireless airwaves from local TV broadcasters nationwide, with the eventual goal of freeing up that space in the TV spectrum for cellular usage. This summer, the FCC began a lengthy series of auctions, selling the air space to wireless and telecommunication companies – AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile, with others expected to join later.
In the run-up to the FCC acquisitions, speculators began buying up small, local stations, with an eye toward selling them at huge profit to the government. KSCI is one of several stations owned by Texas-based NRJ TV, a broadcast services company that owns stations from New York to Honolulu.
While NRJ has been participating in the FCC program, an executive at NRJ who asked not to be named told The Rafu that KSCI is not one of the stations the company plans to sell.
Though the clearing of spectrum space is not one of the stated reasons for UTB’s troubles, it underscores the wholesale changes in the way programming is being delivered to viewers, and the impact it’s having on the business of television. Advertising based on the traditional parameters – the calculated number of eyeballs on a particular program, station or article – is a business model that faces becoming obsolete for TV and other forms of mass media.
Sharp drop in advertising
The real-world results of the evolution of viewing, combined with confusion among its target audience, translates to a viewership far short of what UTB needs to remain solvent. While occupying Channel 18.2 had been relatively inexpensive for UTB, the advertising has dropped off precipitously, The Rafu has learned. Additionally, the rights to air many of the most popular programs aired by UTB are purchased from Japanese broadcasters, such as NHK or TBS. Those contracts only allow for over-the-air showings, not for online exhibition.
Moreover, many of the commercials seen on UTB of late have been from advertisers that share the same parent company as UTB. The station is a part of ESP Entertainment Group, a Japan-based company that owns, among other things, ESP Guitars and the Hollywood music school Musicians Institute, both of which have run extensive ads on UTB.
Mihara laments the fact that television viewing is becoming more on-demand in its nature, insisting that TV’s variety is one of the most valuable components of the medium.
“If people seek out only what they specifically want to watch, knowledge is limited,” he said. “TV offers many ideas, differing viewpoints. That’s healthy for democracy.”
Wrapping up before the changeover
Before 18.2 vanishes on Sept. 3, the station will complete the current seasons of two of its most popular shows. The morning drama “Amachan,” about a small-town pearl diver who becomes a pop star, will finish its run, as will the police drama “Partners.”
UTB programs that will continue on channel 18 beginning Sept. 11 include its original weekly news magazine “SoCal Japan,” as well as the music variety show “Enkame” and the period drama “Sanada Maru.” With the cutbacks in programming, most of the staff, including the daughter of UTB co-founder Yasushi Haneda, will be leaving the station.
Among the casualties of UTB’s reduced capacity was the broadcast of this year’s Nisei Week Grand Parade in Little Tokyo, an event that required considerable staff and cost on the part of the station.
The Rafu has heard from several viewers who are disappointed with the demise of UTB’s 24-hour schedule. Little Tokyo resident Atsushi Ashizawa opened one of the first ramen shops in the United States. He said he will miss the food-related programs, notably one that features sake.
“I subscribe to [pay channel]TV Japan, so I can still watch some Japanese programs, but it’s disappointing that UTB will cut back so much,” Ashizawa said.
Another UTB executive was proud of the way the station has consistently provided English subtitles for Japanese programs, bringing valuable cultural access to life in Japan for all ethnicities.
“There is still a demand, so we’re going to continue to bring home country programming in some way,” Mihara pledged. “The VCR and DVDs posed some problems in the past, but TV survived. This is a very different landscape now, but somehow, I’m sure it will survive.”
Rafu Japanese section assistant editor Jun Nagata contributed this report.