X Files' Supernatural Hold On Japan

It looks as though intrepid TV FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Sculley have cracked their toughest case yet: the mysterious Japanese market. Forget autos--when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the Japanese, it takes a hot new television show with a cult following to break through.

So the planets are aligning for The X-Files, Fox Broadcasting's hit about two FBI agents assigned to investigate all manner of unexplained phenomena. Starting Nov. 22, this Twilight Zone of the '90s will become the first U.S. TV import to run on Japanese prime time in eight years. Plots have included prehistoric organisms brought back to life, visitors from outer space, and secret government experiments. With the tag line "the truth is out there," the show, now in its third season, has helped Fox's Friday-night ratings and propelled actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson into international fame.

Already, video rentals of the program in Japan have been stratospheric, with turnover averaging 20 times a month for the 300,000 copies sent out since March. "That's as big as True Lies or Die Hard," says Junko Segawa of Twentieth Century Film Corp. in Tokyo. Culture Convenience Club Inc., owner of Japan's largest video-store chain, with 750 locations, has taken in roughly $8 million from X-Files rentals since April.

PRICEY ADS. The risk for Asahi National Broadcasting Co., the network airing the show in Japan, is that X-Files fever may be about to peak. Video rentals are waning. And Asahi, Japan's most daring network, has gambled and lost with U.S. programming before. Knight Rider had a decent run in 1987. But Dallas bombed, and The Cosby Show never caught on either.

Asahi needn't fret yet. At least nine sponsors, including Sharp Corp. and Opel, are in for the first season, buying all the ads in the network's most expensive time slot--8 p.m. on Wednesday. That's about $44,000 per 30-second spot. The show can fetch such prices because it attracts Japan's prime demographic group: young singles, mostly men, with money to burn.

Even so, Asahi is taking no chances. A $5 million promotional blitz includes posters all over the transit system, wall murals in department stores, TV ads, and promotional events. Asahi is also giving away X-Files T-shirts, sweatshirts, and baseball caps. Says Segawa: "No matter how big it is in video, it's nothing like TV. You reach millions of viewers."

GOOD BET. For those who know Japan's historical fascination with the supernatural, the show's appeal is no mystery. "Japanese have always loved weird, spooky stuff," says Kozo Marui, the Asahi producer who started campaigning to broadcast the show after seeing one episode last year at the Tokyo International Film Festival. The last U.S. show to pique interest in Japan was the similarly atmospheric Twin Peaks, which gained a cult following--while also sparking a brief boom in cherry pies.

Peripheral marketing for The X-Files is taking off, too. Four publishers are putting out book series. Last Friday, Tokuma Shoten Publishing Co. released a first printing of 80,000 copies of an X-Files book for children. Warner Bros. Inc. plans to release a soundtrack next year. Kinki Nippon Tourist Co., in cooperation with Asahi, is advertising a six-day X-Files trip to Washington (including a tour of FBI headquarters) and New York for $1,100. Next season, they'll go to Vancouver, where the some episodes were shot.

Asahi is trying to ensure a long run. For one thing, it is doing its own dubbing with big-name actors. Voiceovers can mean the difference between one season and three. Hideyuki Makino, Asahi's publicity manager for The X-Files, says: "If the voices don't fit the image, it won't last." That's especially true in Japan, where nearly all fashions are short-lived anyway. "The Japanese bore very easily," says William Penn, TV critic for the Daily Yomiuri, an English-language paper, adding that a run of 24 episodes would be "very good." In the meantime, the profits are out there.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.