Here’s this week’s Media Mix, which is about the retirement of comedian Shinsuke Shimada. The story continues to develop, and while nothing particular has been added to the case that I didn’t already outline in the column, some of the suppositions may require adjustment. At the end, I weakly venture that the scandal may change TV. (I do not, as the Mainichi Shimbun editorialized, hold out any hope that it leads to weakening ties between organized crime and show business; it may scare some people into being more careful and discreet, but from what I understand the yakuza’s hold on the entertainment industry is practically elemental) But since I wrote the column several broadcasters have announced that they may continue some of Shimada’s variety shows, only without him. It sounds desperate to me, and exactly the sort of imagination-free solution that has made TV dull and redundant, which I talked about in more detail in last week’s column. It seems the TV industry will learn nothing from this incident except that if someone talks like a yakuza and acts like a yakuza, it probably means he’s a yakuza.
But the nagging question that the Japanese media hasn’t answered yet is: Why is Shimada considered popular? Or, more to the point: Is he popular? The whole rationale behind his ubiquity was that he guaranteed high ratings, but as AERA points out in the issue that hits newsstands tomorrow, at least two of his shows have been gradually losing ground in terms of audience share for the past two years. More significantly, the whole concept of audience share is being challenged by advertisers who know that this audience is shrinking. Young people now are not watching as much TV as young people in the past did, thanks to other, newer distractions; plus, the population is decreasing. Shimada’s worth as a TV personality is mainly tied to his functionality. Because TV producers have staked their survival on the variety show format, which is cheap and easy, uniformity of effect is more desirable than originality (which takes too much work) or novelty. The only consideration that means anything is assembling talent who are “topical” (i.e., possess names that are recognizable for any reason at all) and can talk on the air. The reason emcees like Shimada and Sanma and Monta Mino (whose star has dipped noticeably in the past two years) are used so relentlessly is that they can think on their feet and are just bold enough in their opinions to seem edgy, though in the grand tradition of TV comedy, “edginess” simply means a capacity for humiliating others. Shimada, especially, knows how to bring out those latent qualities in comedians and idols that are the most provocative; which is why his most characteristic “accomplishment” is the quiz show Hexagon, on which he cultivated a whole new sub-genre of “dumb” talent. The AERA article states, somewhat admiringly, that Shimada’s real worth to the TV industry is the way he has helped develop an entire new generation of TV talent. In other words, Shimada did the TV producers’ work for them, though, in truth, most of these baka tarento are, like all TV talent eventually, on their way down.
So when the chief cabinet secretary mentions during a press conference Shimada’s “genius” as a talk show host, it requires some qualification. What distinguished Shimada from Sanma, his only real rival as an emcee, is Shimada’s autodidactic worldliness. Outside of his own experience, Sanma is incapable of discussing anything except soccer; while Shimada has made a point of becoming knowledgeable about politics, the law, and, especially, finances. But even when he holds forth on these topics on TV, it’s still about him, about what he’s learned and how he learned it. On one of his regular shows, Gyoretsu no Dekiru Horitsu Sodanjo, he shared the studio with real lawyers, but they rarely got to say anything since it was Shimada’s show, and he has a lot to say. It’s easy to understand why he believes he can get away with anything, because everybody lets him do exactly as he pleases. It lets them off the hook.