Japan New Year's TV tradition continues slide

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TOKYO -- Japan's televised New Year's Eve singing extravaganza fared better this year than 12 months earlier, but the increase in the number of viewers was marginal and even rumors of onstage romance were unable to lift the figure above the 40% mark.

Nearly six decades after it first appeared on national broadcaster NHK to ring out the old year, the "Red and White Year-End Song Festival" still pits a group of male singers against their female counterparts.

Split into two parts, the four hour and 20 minute show attracted an audience share of 32.8% for its first half, up from 30.6% last year, and 39.5% for the second half, an increase from the 37.6% recorded in 2006 -- but still the second-lowest figure on record.

"I think that the figure will decline every year from now on, no matter who they get to introduce the show or how they try to get the ratings up," said Phil Brasor, television critic for the Japan Times newspaper.

Suggestions in advance of the show that Masahiro Nakai, the lead singer of boy band SMAP and presenter of the event, would acknowledge a romance with fellow performer Kumi Koda during the event were "artificial" and "transparent."

"I guess they thought that might help the ratings," he said.

Any viewers hoping for a New Year's declaration of love between the two were disappointed.

The show first went out over the radio back in 1951 before switching to TV and attracted more than 80% of the nation's viewers in its heyday. That figure has not been neared since 1972, and it fell below 50% in 1989.

Today, rival commercial channels have sufficient financial clout to put on programs that compete. Tokyo Broadcasting System's K-1 martial arts event featured former sumo wrestler Akebono and won 14.7% of the total figure, while comic duo Downtown took 12.4% on Nippon Television.

Another problem for NHK is that the Internet and computer games have won over a large proportion of people who might have watched the program a generation or two ago.

Despite its declining appeal, Brasor believes the "Red and White Year-End Song Festival" will continue to air on Dec. 31, as it has become a New Year's tradition. NHK executives are expected to attempt to pull off something spectacular when the program marks its 60th anniversary in 2009.
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