She’s not a household name, but she is among the most powerful women in the global entertainment industry. It’s not a stretch to consider her a peer of Hollywood rainmakers like Ava Duvernay, director of “Selma,” and Shonda Rimes, showrunner for the television shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal.” Meet Kayo Washio, head of U.S. operations at Wowow, the first 24/7, fully high-definition broadcast network in Japan and that country’s leading premium pay-TV network, often called Japan’s HBO.
Wowow, which began analog broadcasts in 1991, has recently begun the roll-out of an ambitious plan that would greatly expand its presence at home and abroad, a defensive and offensive strategy in response to increasing competition and a rapidly shifting television landscape. Washio, who in 2011 moved to Los Angeles to open the network’s only American office, is the quarterback and charged with building relationships and making deals to create and acquire content that generates subscriber numbers and advertising revenue for the network. She is among a growing number of women, including women of color, who’ve taken on behind-the-scenes leadership roles in the overwhelmingly white and male entertainment industry.
Washio was born in Kakogawa City in Hyogo Prefecture, a one-hour drive from Kyoto. She earned a degree in International Law and Wowow made the first job offer, a sales staff member in the sales department. “The company is quite a big name in Japan, so it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up and it turned out to be a pivotal decision that has shaped my career thus far,” she says.
Washio next joined the movie department, where she was responsible for producing a weekly program that covered cinema and interviewing A-list celebrities, Japanese and American, to talk about their projects. “In that role, I gained experience in producing television programs, film acquisition, budget control, contract negotiations and, most importantly, I developed strong and beneficial relationships with A-list creators. I had an active role in the marketing and promotion of Wowow series and was involved with the planning and execution of publicity tours for key talent and shows,” she recalls.
As head of U.S. operations, Washio pursues co-production and acquisition deals with leading studios, networks and independent production companies, with a goal to create and acquire TV and film programming for Wowow. “I must create, develop and work with a broad spectrum of industry partners on a global level. Thanks to my experience from working in Japan and America, I have an edge in bridging cultural gaps, which makes the process a little bit easier. In an ever-changing industry, it’s important that I navigate these challenges and continue to pursue opportunities that continue to position Wowow as a premium network,” Washio says.
The ability to bridge cultural gaps that span oceans and gender has been a key component of Washio’s success at Wowow. Women the world over are underrepresented in senior management positions. According to reports prepared for Catalyst, a global not-for-profit organization that works with female CEOs at leading companies, as of 2019 women at U.S. public companies hold just 29% of senior management positions and women in Japan hold only 7% of senior positions. Washio seems to concur as she notes, “Japan’s business culture is old-fashioned, and the work-life balance is way behind. They are starting to catch up now, but I’ve had to familiarize myself and adjust to the business culture here (in the U.S.).”
Bridging cultural gaps also extends to matters of taste and sensibility, perspectives that matter when introducing foreign entertainment to Japanese audiences. American audiences have an appetite for action-adventure, comedy and reality shows but in Japan, drama series dominate. With the exception of “Friends,” sitcoms are not very popular. “Americans’ sense of humor is different than Japanese people and with the two countries’ cultural differences, these types of series don’t translate as they should,” Washio observes. Medical dramas like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Good Doctor,” along with “CSI” and “Criminal Minds,” do especially well there. “Japanese audiences like content that is moving and emotionally driven,” she observes.
“Most of my biggest projects and many of the ones I’m proudest of to date, were made possible thanks to women driving each project, something that’s so rare to see in Japan.”Kayo Washio, head of U.S. operations at Wowow
In a typical year, about 50% of Wowow’s program content is American and other content is either produced in Japan or imported from other countries, with foreign content mostly dubbed into Japanese or occasionally subtitled. “Wowow plans to increase its original content but currently, the network airs just two original TV series weekly, plus an original documentary once or twice a month. I’m focused on producing and co-producing original programs that generate buzz and appeal to both the American and Japanese markets,” Washio says.
Sports programming is another big draw with Japanese audiences and Wowow responded in January 2019, when the company announced it acquired exclusive streaming and pay-TV rights to broadcast the Union of European Football Associations Euro 2020 football tournament (soccer) to subscribers in Japan. In addition to live television broadcasting, Wowow subscribers will have access to all 51 UEFA matches live online as well.
To continue the advancement of Wowow’s expansion plans, Washio is flexing her muscles as a producer and she’s found support in the community of leading entertainment industry women. “Most of my biggest projects and many of the ones I’m proudest of to date, were made possible thanks to women driving each project, something that’s so rare to see in Japan. I executive produced the award-winning “Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno Live!” (TV movie, 2015) with (producer) Laura Michalchyshyn. I’m currently working on developing mini-series projects with some of the most prominent creative talent in television and film. While I can’t share specific details quite yet, it will be announced soon!” she says.
Other plans include extending partnerships with hotels, to bring the network’s programming to new groups of potential subscribers. Like most entertainment networks, it is imperative that WOWOW continues to grow amidst the streaming wars. Wowow, with 2.8 million subscribers as of this year, achieved its 13th consecutive year of growth in 2019 and the goal for 2020 is to surpass 3 million subscribers. “A key to our success has been communicating with our audience, so we can understand and deliver what they want to see. It’s essential for us to continue having these conversations and delivering original and popular content,” she says.
When asked for recommendations that might guide women, including women of color, who desire a successful behind-the-scenes career in the American entertainment industry, Washio replied, “Be proud of who you are and more importantly, be yourself. As simple as it sounds, people often forget that work is worthwhile when you love the people you’re working with or for. It’s much easier to say yes to a project when you love and trust the person behind it. You’ll make sincere connections this way and will build a network of people that value who you are.
“Being from Japan, I had no connections or relationships to leverage when I first came to the U.S., so I’ve had to really build my network from the ground up. I’ve joined the Producers Guild of America, the Television Academy and the International Television Academy. Each has helped me with networking, increasing my and Wowow’s visibility and connections and allowing me to get my foot in the door for many projects. The entertainment industry is built around trust. Knowing yourself and staying true to who you are is the best thing you can do for yourself as you move along your career path.”