MIPCOM ’15: How Nippon TV made an android-hosted talk show

The Japanese broadcaster is heading to Cannes next week with an android-hosted talk show. In an interview with realscreen, Nippon TV's Go Yoshimuta explains how his team and Japanese agency Dentsu made the ground-breaking android and program.
October 2, 2015

It’s rare that a distributor can pitch a show that a network exec has not already seen before in some form or other, but Nippon TV may have stumbled upon one such idea: an android-hosted talk show.

Matsuko-Roid (13 x 30 minutes), which stars campy celebrity Matsuko Deluxe (pictured, left) and his robotic doppelgänger Matsuko-Roid (right), will be among the finished series’ on offer in the Japanese commercial broadcaster’s catalog at MIPCOM next week.

The robot already made an appearance on the Croissette this year when the Japanese ad agency that helped create it, Dentsu, brought it to the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. It hosted a session with its creator, Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University, and Dentsu creative director Yasuharu Sasaki, who told the audience the android cost US$100,000 to make.

The idea came about after Matsuko Deluxe’s management team reached out to Dentsu in the hopes of boosting his popularity. Creatives suggested building an android with Ishiguro and then pitched the idea of doing an android-related TV show to Nippon in fall 2013.

At first, Nippon’s execs were skeptical, but once they saw Ishiguro’s work they bought into the notion and came up with Matsuko and Matsuko – the Japanese title – a show that featured only the comedian and his doppelgänger instead of the usual celebrity-guest discussion format.

Despite the degree of inflexibility and added production costs that come with working with a mostly motionless android star, Nippon has found ways to improvise and play around with the format throughout the series’ 27-episode run.

Initially, the network green-lit one episode. Ishiguro and his affiliated android technology company, A-Lab, then spent eight months developing and building the machine to have it ready for the first shoot days in December. Less than a month later, the one-off special aired and rated so well that Nippon ordered a weekly series.

Once in production, Dentsu handled the promotional strategy behind Matsuko-Roid, as well as its associated advertising contracts. The team kept the robot’s development under wraps ahead of the first episode, preferring to surprise the public and build buzz shortly before the premiere episode.

“Matsuko Deluxe is known for being frank and acid-tongued, so no celebrity guest has ever dared to answer back [to him],” Go Yoshimuta, producer of Nippon’s production division, explains in an email to realscreen. “But we could make the android talk back just as feistily and have the viewers enjoy exchanges that they’ve never seen anywhere else.”

To ensure Matsuko-Roid’s banter is appropriately acidic, producers use two improvisational techniques. Sometimes an impersonator named Hori will mimic Matsuko’s voice from the behind the scenes.

“It’s not enough to identically copy the voice. The impersonator really needs to step into the character,” says Yoshimuta. “This essentially means that human talent is hugely important in successfully creating a show like this.”

More commonly, producers will type sentences into a computer that the android says aloud in the host’s voice thanks to a pre-recorded vocal technology called AI Talk. Matsuko will occasionally provide talking points in advance as well.

“Matsuko had to read about 400 sentences to create a database that AI Talk uses to combine words and form new sentences that sound really natural,” says Yoshimuta. “Matsuko didn’t record phonetic sounds like ‘a’ or ‘e’ or ‘u.’ Actual sentences were recorded, and AI Talk dissects them and creates new combinations. The 400 sentences that Matsuko read were really strange and meaningless but they were necessary to create the ideal database of words.”

In a special episode that aired late September, producers make the robot speak on its own without human assistance using technology created by telecom company NTT.

The type-talk method is what producers primarily use, especially when shooting on location. During the show, the android travels to rural areas far from Tokyo and talks with the locals while the real host offers commentary remotely from the studio.

The process of shooting on location with a robot was something producers figured out as they went along. The first location shoot took place on a snowy day in the mountainous region of Nagano Prefecture. Equipment started to freeze and batteries ran out so the crew was forced to shoot quicker than expected, but managed to capture fun interactions with two or three locals.

Throughout the season, producers have made continuous revisions to the android’s specs to make sure they can handle more complicated situations. Each time, Professor Ishiguro must be consulted and has thus become an integral part of the production team.

“We meticulously customize Matsuko-Roid based on what’s necessary for each episode,” explains Yoshimuta, adding that these revisions have already added to production costs.

The good news for human talent worried they will eventually be displaced by androids is that it’s more expensive to develop, maintain and transport a robot than it is a human.

“An android that just sits in the studio and says basic things might be less costly, but that’s not interesting at all,” says Yoshimuta. “We want to see what an android can really do and test the limits of what we can create at this moment. That’s what the show is about and along with it came big costs.

“Right now we’re relying a lot on Matsuko Deluxe’s charisma so with this program in particular, the person is still more entertaining and flexible,” he continues. “I think the show is appealing because they appear as a duo.”

Just how high-maintenance is Matsuko-Roid? To move his arm costs ¥4 million (US$33,350) and moving both arms would have cost ¥15 million ($125,000) so Nippon opted to forgo body movements – save for the one arm – and shelled out to animate its facial expressions. In all, producers poured ¥20 million ($167,000) into updating the robot throughout the series’ run.

“We pay the production committee ¥1 million for each episode and that pays for the human resource costs of the team that needs to come whenever we shoot, as well as the subtle facial expressions,” Yoshimuta explains. “From the beginning, Matsuko-Roid had all the basic expressions of delight, sorrow, anger, and pleasure but we’ve refined it even further. But each time you tweak it, you pay extra.”

Although the robot has evolved greatly over the 27-episode run, the differences might be hard to spot week to week. As such, Matsuko-Roid is going on hiatus this fall so producers can dream up ways to make the android even more dynamic.

Japanese viewers can expect the robot to return in spring 2016, but in a different format. Nippon is testing four possible scenarios: a comedy show, a live performance with an all-girl pop idol group, a shopping program and a shared house-type situation.

In the meantime, Yoshimuta believes it unlikely androids will start taking over Japanese TV — especially those that require their stars to express a range of emotions. Matsuko-Deluxe is still the main draw, he says, although Matsuko-Roid’s agent has apparently been receiving calls from NHK and other interested outlets.

“Developing an android makes one reflect on humans,” says Yoshimuta. “There are many subtleties that I would have never noticed had I not worked with an android. We had to sacrifice certain specs due to budgetary constraints, and that made me aware of what expressions were important to humans, things that I had previously taken for granted.”

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.