On a Friday night at a downtown Tokyo television studio, 12 teenage models with cutesy nicknames such as Ayamin and Kyokyo are waiting nervously to find out who has won coveted spots on the cover of Popteen magazine, a Japanese fashion bible.
The girls, sporting a range of trendy styles, are the stars of Popteen Cover Girl War, a hit show from Internet upstart AbemaTV that could signal a new direction for Japanese television.
Eschewing the pricy serials and star-studded films that have helped companies like Netflix upend the traditional TV business in the US, AbemaTV is betting on low-budget, reality-based fare with colorful graphics, relatable young faces and a relentless focus on generating social media buzz.
The approach has pulled in millions of young viewers, convincing some advertisers and industry analysts that AbemaTV has found a lucrative new model.
“It’s a generation used to rapidly processing information,” AbemaTV head Tatsuhiko Taniguchi said of his young viewers.
Dramas are put together “as if we are stuffing in twice the amount of screenplay,” he added.
Japan’s traditional broadcasters, boxed in by government regulations and concerned about upsetting their regional stations, have mostly left the Internet field clear for upstarts such as AbemaTV, and foreign players such as Netflix and Amazon.com.
Yet AbemaTV remains an unproven bet for its biggest backer, online ad agency CyberAgent, which launched the network three years ago with TV Asahi. CyberAgent spent ￥20 billion ($179.06 million) on the venture in the fiscal year that ended in September last year, much of that on programming, against revenue of just ￥6 billion.
CyberAgent’s stock price is down 40 percent from last July’s all time high at a time when its advertising and gaming units are also under pressure.
The overseas players are also continuing to make inroads: In addition to subtitling their large back catalogues, they are offering a growing library of local-language content, such as Netflix’s Terrace House.
However, CyberAgent founder and chief executive officer Susumu Fujita, who at age 26 became the youngest CEO ever to take a company public in Japan, remains confident.
“We are not rushing to reach profitability,” said Fujita, 45, who estimates that revenue should double this year on the same amount of spending.
AbemaTV has about 8 million viewers each week.
Goldman Sachs analyst Masaru Sugiyama said that the venture should turn profitable next year and hit ￥164 billion in revenue in 2024.
With big consumer brands looking for online advertising opportunities, “there’s a huge need for professional content on the Internet, but there is a scarcity of that, especially in Japan,” Sugiyama said.
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