'Millionaire' quiz show import doesn't find success in Japan

TOKYO - Japanese TV producers have long had a simple rule of thumb regarding programming: If something's big in the United States, it will probably work here as well. And this show seemed like a sure thing.

''Quiz $ Millionaire'' is modeled after America's most-watched game show right down to the drum rolls, offering contestants more cash than anything else on the air.

But the Japanese version of ''Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'' has turned out to be a ratings bust, providing a study in how Japanese tastes - some might even say morals - differ from those across the Pacific.

The failure of ''Quiz $ Millionaire'' has surprised even media insiders because the Japanese have long had an insatiable appetite for U.S. pop culture. From baggy jeans to roller blades, just about anything that's a hit in America is a hit in Japan.

So why hasn't the show been able to attract an audience, despite a 10 million yen jackpot - about $108,000 - billed as the biggest in the history of Japanese TV?

It seems that watching ordinary people winning money isn't very enticing in Japan, a culture that has traditionally discouraged individuals from flaunting their wealth or achievements, says one media observer.

''Japan is like one big village,'' said Mamoru Sakamoto, editor of the TV monthly Galac. ''Americans may really identify with somebody winning big bucks on TV, but Japanese are more apt to think, 'What did he do to deserve that?' ''

Instead, the formula in Japan has been short on cash and heavy on laughs. And instead of average people, the contestants in Japanese game shows tend to be TV celebrities who don't need prizes and who know how to yuk it up on camera.

''Game shows are supposed to be a form of entertainment, and the average person just isn't very entertaining,'' said Tomohiro Maruyama, an accountant in his 30s.

There is, of course, another catch.

The prize money is limited to 10 million yen by the country's antitrust laws, originally intended to prevent companies with deep pockets from using high-stakes contests to woo customers away from their competitors.

''Re-creating the same level of excitement with much less money at stake is difficult,'' said Fuji TV executive Matsunori Takahashi.

Still, money has never been the name of the game in Japan. That honor is reserved for weirdness.

Japan's hottest game show is ''Tokyo Friend Park II,'' which features a pair of celebrities competing in a series of oddball events - like flinging themselves against a wall-sized Velcro target to see who sticks (''Wall Crash'') or trying not to drop precariously balanced boxes of take-out food while riding a motorbike simulator (''Delivery Deluxe'').

The prizes for completing these odd tasks are often just tokens. For example, after sweating through a recent episode of ''Tokyo Friend Park II'', popular sumo wrestler Takatoriki was rewarded with a triple-decker bunk bed for his kids.

And for those game shows that do feature average people as contestants, it is more often comic relief than gratuitous wealth on offer.

One, called ''Happy Family Plan,'' gives fathers a chance to win a showcase of prizes worth 3 million yen for the whole family by mastering an improbable mental or physical feat in a week's time.

Many don't win, but the fun comes from watching home video footage of overworked Japanese company men trying to memorize the flags of all 185 countries of the world, or figuring out how to scoop up a school of goldfish with a tissue-paper net.

Fuji TV, which bought the rights to ''Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'' from Celador Productions, hasn't given up on ''Quiz $ Millionaire.'' But getting contestants to go all the way hasn't been easy.

It took more than three months for somebody to finally win 10 million yen. Middle school teacher Yasuyuki Kunimitsu, 26, became the first contestant to answer all 15 questions correctly on an episode broadcast July 27.

Many other contestants drop out of the all-or-nothing game after winning much less.

''Japanese people tend to be conservative when it comes to money,'' said producer Toshihiko Matsuo. ''If they win 5 million yen on the show, they probably figure, 'I might as well quit while I'm ahead and work for the rest.''


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