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VIEWPOINTS : Why DAT Isn't Un-American : The U.S. record industry dreads Japan's digital audio tape because it might have to lower prices of compact discs and improve album quality. It's a tough life. : While we may not see DAT machines this year or next, they are bound to enter the market someday. Their negative effect will probably be nil.

December 11, 1988|JOHN C. DVORAK | JOHN C. DVORAK is a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner and for such computer publications as PC magazine and PC Computing

A s another Christmas approaches, Americans rejoice in the knowledge that the dread digital audio tape deck has been kept from our shores, thanks to the efforts of the Recording Industry Assn. of America. It's a good thing, too, because with one of these tape recorders a wily audiophile can make perfect digital duplicates of those popular compact discs. He can then give copies away like crazy to all his friends, thus ruining the record business once and for all.

Digital audio tape decks have been available since 1987 in Japan and West Germany. Ranging in price from $1,000 to $2,000, they are hardly something my mother is going to run out and purchase just to make bootleg tapes.

But this bootleg paranoia seems to highlight the attitude of the RIAA and its cohorts, which have managed to block the sale of this device in the United States. They've done this by waving in the air reams of proposed legislation requiring that copy-blocking circuitry be installed in the machines. The copy-blocking circuitry ruins the fidelity and, thus, the appeal of the machines. The vendors would just as soon skip the market if these modifications are required.

Since there is no evidence that the RIAA won't act on its threat, and since there is no evidence that Congress won't back the RIAA, the Japanese electronics giants are keeping DAT machines out of the United States indefinitely. Yes, indefinitely.

So the parade passes us by. It's already embarrassing that no manufacturer in the United States can even make a full-sized videocassette recorder, let alone an 8-millimeter VCR, a camcorder, or a 4-millimeter DAT deck. Now we can't even buy these newer devices because arcane industries such as the record business can't make adjustments for new technologies.

When you scratch beneath the surface of this jittery crowd, fearful of DAT, you find the same jittery crowd that wanted to ban (yes, ban!) the VCR a few years back. Lawsuit after lawsuit was threatened, a few filed. It was claimed that VCRs were machines designed to violate copyrights. Before it got out of control, the corporate bean counters at the major movie studios took a look at cassette sales and put a stop to the complaining. The producers were making a ton of dough from cassette sales. Now videocassette sales equal theater revenue. In fact, the movie business is booming, thanks to cassettes.

These observations are ignored by the anti-DAT crowd, which argues that there is no real alternative to prerecorded videocassettes other than the struggling videodisc. In the audio arena, there are a lot of media alternatives, including vinyl, cassette and the money-making compact disc--the alternative the industry wants to protect.

This year, more compact discs have been sold than vinyl records. (In dollar terms, sales of pricey compact discs shot past vinyl in late 1986.) They are currently selling at a clip of 150 million discs per year, translating into sales in the range of $2 billion. Heaven forbid anything interfere with this cash-flow juggernaut.

Industry gossip has it that, without DAT, the record business will have no additional pressure to lower the price of CDs, which cost less than $2 to manufacture and sell for $12 and up. Since a DAT tape can be copied from generation to generation, dub to dub, forever, without an iota of degradation, it's feared that a pass-around market for tapes will hurt CDs. This assumes that some fanatics will have two of the expensive DAT machines with which to make copies.

The recording industry dreads the possibility that to compete, it will have to lower prices of the CDs and also improve album quality. It's a tough life. Meanwhile, as more CD manufacturing facilities open in the next few years, overcapacity is expected to force prices down sharply. DAT, they say, is part of a one-two punch they can't afford to let happen. In the interim, don't expect any relief from the high prices.

The joke of all this is that the expensive DAT recorder is nothing more than a high-end audio toy for fanatics. The electronics industry of Japan, after predicting sales of 50,000 units in 1987, reported that 30,000 units were sold. Compare that to the 3.3 million CD players sold in the United States during that same period. DAT is hardly a stunning success in an electronics industry expected to hit a whopping $500 billion in worldwide sales this year.

While we may not see DAT machines this year or next, they are bound to enter the market someday. Their negative effect on the recording industry will probably be nil. After all, the real market for bootleg tapes is among budget-minded teens who copy junk cassettes on their cheap dubbing decks. If DAT will do anything, it will create a small market for prerecorded DAT tapes, adding to the revenue of the RIAA members.

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