Nico Nico Douga, a website that streams live video on the Internet much like a television station, has been a huge hit in Japan, experiencing rapid growth with membership rising to around 27.25 million users.
The site handles all sorts of programming, from movies to matches of shogi, a Japanese board game reminiscent of chess. This, combined with viewer interaction on the site, has been a recipe for success.
"Live National Diet Broadcast," "Pro Baseball: DeNA vs Seibu," "Lupin III Live! Nico Nico Anime Masterpiece," "Live Music Idol Channel," all these and more are available through the site. The program lineup comes off as a cross between public broadcaster Japan Broadcasting Corp. (NHK) and commercial television, listing serious programs alongside lighter content.
Nico Nico was originally a site for users to post their own videos, much like American website YouTube, but in 2007 it began producing and showing its own programs as "official live broadcasts," thus strengthening its presence as a media outlet.
Content has included a Space Shuttle launch live from the United States and an exclusive interview with former Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa. In addition to professional baseball games featuring teams such as the Rakuten Golden Eagles, this year Nico Nico began streaming shogi matches between top-ranked Meijin title-holders. The site also shows around 150 movies, including films from the "Harry Potter" series.
As Nico Nico adds more content, membership is expanding steadily. Some estimate that about 80 percent of Japan’s 20-something population is now registered with the site. Conventional media such as NHK, Fuji Television Network Inc. and The Asahi Shimbun, seemingly carried along by Nico Nico's momentum, have been developing a succession of joint projects with the site.
Most membership was free at first, but now Nico Nico has created a premium membership that allows users--for a monthly fee of 525 yen ($6.60)--to access content even when the site experiences heavy traffic. In the online world, where free services are the norm, Nico Nico has succeeded in turning a profit by introducing a paid content model.
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Nico Nico's popularity stems from its comments feature. A member can write comments through a computer or other device with an Internet connection. Seiji Sugimoto, president of Niwango Inc., the company that runs Nico Nico, says, "We provide a sense of everyone enjoying a program together."
While video-sharing websites from overseas like YouTube and Hulu continue to make headway in Japan, Nico Nico, a homegrown operation, is expanding in its own way in the domestic market.
"The comments are similar to audience members crying from the seats of a kabuki theater," says Sugimoto. "Perhaps that suits the Japanese culture."
There was another service that preceded Nico Nico called Packet Radio, which offered still images and audio to mobile phone users. Like Nico Nico, it allowed viewers to post comments on message boards, creating what Ryo Furuya of Dwango Co., Niwango's parent company, calls "the original form of today's services that let viewers converse in real time, so to speak."
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Nico Nico used to be a "hotbed of copyright infringement" where users posted unauthorized videos of musical acts. Dwango Chairman Nobuo Kawakami tried to both legitimize the site while "ensuring freedom." The company signed a comprehensive licensing agreement with the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers and record labels under which Dwango, rather than viewers, pays a fee to use their content.
"Free places create interesting cultures," Kawakami notes.
Hatsune Miku, the virtual idol supported by Nico Nico, has become such a hit that she has put on public performances in the United States. She has spurred a chain reaction of creativity in which viewers compose songs for Miku to sing, then other viewers record themselves singing those songs, and still other viewers add video.
"Hatsune Miku is the first viewer-generated character and history will remember what she does over the next century or so," says Kawakami.
By Yasukazu Akada
The Asahi Shimbun AJW
21 June 2012
A scene from live broadcast of Nico Nico Douga. Comments from viewers stream on the screen. (Provided by Dwango Co.)