TV plays catch-up as Japan grays

Nets slowly move to accommodate burgeoning senior demo

With the most rapidly aging population in the world, Japanese television companies may have to mimic a trend that is becoming increasingly apparent on the big screen here.

While there have been few dramatic changes in schedules to date, the shift in national demographics is seeing more and more television companies following the example of some Japanese film outfits as they attempt to accommodate the growing elderly viewing population.

At the cinema, filmmakers are unashamedly harking back to "the good old days" of the last century for their inspiration. "Yamato: The Last Battle" and "I Go to Die for You," which center on heroics in the dying days of World War II, have been big-budget hits at the boxoffice in the past couple years, while "Always: Sunset on Third Street" portrayed a family during the rebuilding of Tokyo in the mid-1950s.

Another movie, "The Last Game," due out this year, is similarly nostalgic for a time when life was simpler and slower.

All of these films have something in common — a high proportion of the people going to see them actually lived through those times.

The potential market among the graying population is now something that can't be ignored, industry executives now realize.

"We know we are going to have to look at this specifically in the future, but there are already some subtle changes in the lineups," said Tom Oki of the investor relations department at TV Tokyo Corp. "Several channels are reducing their programming aimed at children and younger people because the proportion of kids in Japan is declining."

Less air time is being given to kids' animated programs, he said, with TV Tokyo rescheduling its previously popular "Keroro Gunso" show from primetime Friday to Sunday morning. Fuji Television Network also has tweaked its time slots, while TV Asahi dropped "Boboboobo Boobobo" from its schedule entirely in late 2005.

"Our viewers are on average slightly older than other stations' viewers, and we already have a good selection of programs that they are attracted to, such as travel shows or those about food or hobbies," Oki said. "But it will be important for us to be aware of the changes."

Japan's birth rate has been falling steeply for half a century, at the same time as better diets and improved medical care are ensuring people live longer lives. In 2005, the average Japanese woman gave birth to 1.26 children in her lifetime, well below the 2.1 required to keep the population stable.

In 2006, according to government statistics, the average Japanese could expect to live to 82. Japan also has the highest proportion of elderly people in the world, with more than 20% over 65.

By 2050, that figure is expected to stand at 40% of the total population.

"We are not setting special targets to win elderly viewers, but it is clearly an important sector of the market," said Gota Kikuchi, a spokesman for Nippon Television Network Corp., adding that Sunday-evening staple "Shoten" is a favorite among older viewers because it is a form of entertainment that dates back to before the advent of television.

Running since May 1966 — making it the second-longest-running program on Japanese TV — it airs for 30 minutes every Sunday night at 5:30 p.m. and features a group of six rakugo comic storytellers competing to tell the funniest joke.

"Older viewers seem to like variety programs and those on traveling and food as well," Kakuchi said.

National broadcaster NHK has a solid following among older Japanese, with research suggesting that the majority of its viewers are in their 50s or older, according to spokeswoman Naoko Sakamoto.

"People who are retired tend to watch more television and there is a need for information about hobbies, their health and so on," she said.