- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2008

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A grown man wearing a diaper is spun around until he can barely stand, then is made to try an obstacle course while carrying pitchers of milk without spilling any. Another man, dressed like an insect, flings himself onto a giant-sized “windshield” with a giant-sized “splat.”

Is American television going crazy? No — American television is going Japanese.

With the increasing popularity of YouTube clips from Japanese game shows such as “Endurance,” “Hole in the Wall” and “Human Tetris,” U.S. networks — never shy about imitation — are bringing similar antics to their prime-time schedules.

The concept appears to be working.

“Wipeout,” which premiered June 24, was the highest-rated show last week, becoming ABC’s first series to debut in the weekly top spot since 2004’s “Desperate Housewives,” the Hollywood Reporter notes. The show attracted 10 million viewers and gave the network a foothold on Tuesday, which has become the most competitive night of the summer.

The obstacle-course competition also gave a strong lead-in for the premiere of ABC’s “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” (8 million viewers). According to data released Tuesday by Nielsen Media Research, “Japanese Game Show” ranked seventh for the week and tied NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” (11.7 viewers) for second place in the 9 p.m. slot, behind Fox’s penultimate episode of “Hell’s Kitchen” (7.8 million).

With its initial success, ABC on Tuesday aired back-to-back premieres of “Wipeout” (8 p.m.) and “I Survived a Japanese Game Show” (9 p.m.) — and a domestic edition of “Hole in the Wall” coming this fall on Fox.

“It’s going to be like nothing that American audiences have ever seen on network television,” says “I Survived” host Tony Sano.

Indeed, Americans, accustomed to such family-friendly game shows as “Jeopardy!,” “The Price Is Right” and “Deal or No Deal,” will likely find the new shows somewhat jolting. Then again, that’s the idea.

“There is a great desire to shock over there,” notes “Hole in the Wall” executive producer Stuart Krasnow. “Ironically, we’re more puritan over here. But the Japanese will shock to any extreme.”

Popular worldwide, “Hole” pits contestants against solid walls coming at them with odd-shaped openings. They must mimic those shapes with their bodies to allow them to pass through the walls, lest they get knocked into a pool of water.

Physically challenging, for sure. Yet for sheer zaniness, “I Survived” executive producers Arthur Smith and Kent Weed have gone all-out weird.

“We watched hundreds of hours of Japanese shows and looked for all of the consistent themes,” Mr. Smith says, “whether it’s being dizzy, use of treadmills, falling into water. We took those elements and then designed new games around them” with a little help from Japanese game-show producers to make the stunts more … well, Japanese.

“I Survived” moves two teams of five unsuspecting American contestants - who, by the way, didn’t know they were going to Japan — into a house in Tokyo. The teams compete in bizarre games, with the winning crew in each round getting a “reward,” such as a VIP tour around Tokyo, while the losers suffer a “punishment,” such as having to haul rickshaws around Tokyo. They then vote their two worst teammates into an elimination game, such as “Splat on a Windshield.”

By now, you’re probably picking up that the most consistent themes in Japanese game shows are humiliation and embarrassment — sometimes to the point of being sadistic — which oddly enough can serve as stress relief for conservative Japanese.

“It’s one of the only avenues they have for release, where they can actually let go and not be conservative anymore,” says Mr. Weed.

Mr. Krasnow agrees. While U.S. game show contestants are in it for the cash and prizes, he says the motivation is far different for the Japanese player.

“It’s true escapism,” he notes. “It allows them to really not be that proper person who just fits in all the time. Their culture is really about not being the loud one in the room and not being noticed. So for them to stand out is funny in and of itself.”

All this is very different from American game shows, where players generally are treated with respect, no matter how goofily they behave.

“Treating our contestants well is our bread and butter,” says “The Price Is Right” executive producer Syd Vinnedge. “For us, the contestants, and therefore the audience, are the stars of the show.”

Hosts of U.S. game shows, such as “Price’s” Drew Carey, laugh with nutty contestants, not at them. The American host, Mr. Krasnow explains, “is there to comfort the losing contestant, to put a silver lining on a contestant who feels bad. In Japan, it’s not like that- it’s shock for shock’s sake. If they feel bad, who cares?”

Also unlike in Japan, U.S. game-show contestants are typically chosen for their likability. “We place a lot of emphasis on casting,” says David Goldberg, president of Endemol Entertainment, which produces “Deal or No Deal” and “Wipeout.” “We think it’s really important to have people playing the game that we relate to and have a genuine interest in seeing them win.”

One thing that’s true in both the U.S. and Japan: There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of people who are willing to do just about anything in front of a camera.

“Ninety-five percent of the world are voyeurs, and five percent of the world are exhibitionists,” Mr. Krasnow says. “Thank God for the five percent.”

Robyn-Denise Yourse contributed to this report.

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