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SPECIAL REPORT: DIGITAL TELEVISION

Once a Leader in TV Technology, Japan Now Lags in Digital Race

Government's early push for analog HDTV, now headed toward obsolescence, has put it years behind the U.S.

November 16, 1998|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — The nation that launched the race for the future of television technology and spurred the United States to develop digital TV ironically finds itself behind the starting block and having trouble finding its running shoes.

"In Japan, digital TV is about four or five years behind the U.S. and U.K.," said Kunihiko Kawada, an analyst with HSBC Securities.

While several stations in the United States launched digital HDTV broadcasting this month, Japan will not start regular digital service until at least 2003 and then only in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya. Elsewhere, the launch date is set at 2006. And there's still considerable infighting among Japanese interest groups that could further slow digital's expansion.

Japan's major problem is that it peaked too early. Intent on shepherding in what it saw as a key building block of the Information Age, Japan latched onto HDTV--high-definition television--shortly after the 1964 Olympics. Because digital systems weren't well developed, however, it worked diligently to perfect an analog HDTV standard.

During the next 30 years, government-owned broadcaster NHK poured an estimated $150 million into Japan's Hi-Vision analog system. The electronics industry reportedly pitched in over $1 billion more. The result is now about 118 hours weekly of experimental Hi-Vision analog broadcasting with clear, impressive images.

"It's something of a success story," said Shuichiro Sunohara, deputy director at NHK. "Our system is one of the best analog systems."

Unfortunately for Japan, however, the rest of the world didn't stand still. Even before Japan started Hi-Vision broadcasting in the early 1990s, some contend, it was technologically obsolete. "My basic contention is that the Japanese format is not cut out to survive in the real digital age," one Asian technology analyst said.

Furthermore, by locking into an analog system, Japan has created some major vested interests that now resist change. A report last month calling for a phaseout of analog broadcasting by 2010 drew howls of protest, forcing the Telecommunications Ministry to back down.

Japanese manufacturers, for example, resist any rapid advance in Japanese digital HDTV for fear that sales of expensive analog HDTV sets will dry up. Japanese consumers of these $4,000 Hi-Vision sets, meanwhile, are reluctant in the middle of a deep recession to buy new digital sets, or even digital converters, for a system they were told was the wave of the future.

And Japan's 126 broadcasting companies strongly oppose any change unless the government subsidizes the introduction of digital equipment, which it is considering.

"If our schedule is too fast, many small stations will go bankrupt," said Nobuyuki Tajiri, a deputy director with the Telecommunications Ministry. "We're thinking about some financial support."

Most nations face a difficult balancing act between serving their existing viewers and prospective future digital viewers.

But Japan's much larger HDTV analog base and its cultural preference for nonconfrontational solutions has made the job even tougher. "We would like the government to avoid rapid change so it won't unsettle consumers," said Tamotsu Harada, a director with the Electronics Industry Assn. of Japan.

Japanese manufacturers like Sony and Matsushita, meanwhile, find themselves racing to keep up with rapid market advances in Europe and the U.S. even as they participate in measured, managed solutions back home.

"The overseas technology of digital is moving very fast while the analog is slowing," said Hirotaka Sugiyama, a Sony general manager. "It's like human years and dog years."

Japan's HDTV campaign is ultimately a lesson in the danger of trying to manage technological advances. Japan anguished over proper HDTV standards for decades with an eye toward creating the global standard. In its push to forge a domestic consensus, however, it took its eye off the global technology curve. It also failed to appease foreign partners increasingly wary of Japan's global domination of HDTV. Now it finds even Asian nations leaning toward European or American standards.

A huge Hi-Vision demonstration screen in the lobby of the Telecommunications Ministry displays pastoral scenes, but almost no one gives it a second glance, a risk Japan may face early next century if it doesn't regain momentum.

"It might sound better to make the transition to digital gradually," said Makoto Nomura, research director with Sumitomo Life Research Institute. "If we take too long, however, we'll be behind in the digital revolution."

Mark Magnier can be reached via e-mail at mark.magnier@latimes.com.

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