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Sunday, Jan. 27, 2002

MEDIA MIX

Hi-Vision advocates display a lack of foresight


Being someone who isn't intimidated by purchases of electronics, I recently entered the digital age with an alarming lack of serious forethought. I bought a digital BS tuner. At less than 50,000 yen, it's hardly a huge investment by itself, but since being hooked up to my TV, it's caused me to reflect bitterly on the kind of future it points to.

BS digital tuners allow you to access digital satellite signals broadcast by NHK and commercial companies, not to mention specialty subscription outfits like Wowow and Star Channel. You can also access "BS radio" audio signals and hook into interactive programming where and when it's available. The picture is crisp and clear, the sound noticeably better, and even if your TV is not the high-definition type, you can receive HD broadcasts, which look pretty good on a conventional CRT set.

I should be happy, especially given that next month's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City will be broadcast almost nonstop on digital BS channels. (Mere mortals will have to make do with "digests" on NHK Sogo.) But when I look at my TV nook, my heart sinks. In addition to my 21-inch Sony and the Sharp BS tuner, there's a Sanyo VCR with nondigital BS tuner; an older, crippled Sony VCR (bad motor), which is mainly used as a tuner when the other VCR is recording, since the TV set's tuner seems to be on strike; the little box from Wowow that unscrambles the analog BS signal; a DVD player; and three or four remote controls. I was thinking of adding a hard disk, but there's no place to put it.

Apparently, it's going to get worse, and all in the name of getting better. NHK recently announced that it will begin developing digital terrestrial broadcasts next year. That means all television broadcasts in Japan, satellite and terrestrial, will eventually be digital.

Wonderful. But when you read the small print (i.e., explanations by industry journalists), you find that current BS digital tuners will not handle the new digital terrestrial broadcasts. Also, current TV sets will not be able to process these new signals. That means another box and a new TV, as well as another half-dozen cables and a new warren of dust bunnies multiplying under your TV cabinet.

Though the government should shoulder the blame for this lack of coordination and vision, NHK is the main culprit. As a "special" corporation that isn't quite public, isn't quite private, but which nevertheless has taken upon its shoulders the burden of the nation's telecommunications advance, NHK promotes these new technologies at its own discretion without really thinking about the end-consumer.

NHK's culpability goes beyond the screw-up surrounding high-definition TV (Hi-Vision), which it commandeered and then botched by backing a standard that was eventually rejected by the rest of the world (Betamax all over again). The main problem is that NHK acts above and beyond the reach of a citizenry that it is supposed to be serving.

After all, you pay for NHK's operations directly, or, at least, you're supposed to. I pay about 25,000 yen annually for the privilege of watching both terrestrial and BS broadcasts.

However, I have no say in NHK's programming or its various enterprises. In fact, until only a few years ago, the company refused to publicly disclose what went on at its board meetings. Even now, NHK is very secretive about the way it spends money and how it decides on particular courses of action. Inevitably, this kind of corporate behavior gives rise to mistrust and accusations of misappropriated funds.

But aside from these suspicions, NHK has been acting like a private company for years. The material it produces for broadcast using the money it collects from individual households is diversified into publications, videotapes and other materials that the corporation then sells outright. NHK sponsors events and exhibitions that get advertised for free on its TV stations.

Last summer, the Japan Commercial Broadcast Federation complained that NHK was moving into areas that "placed unfair pressure on commercial media," such as its sophisticated Internet news service, which the chairman of Nippon TV likened to "the government flooding the market with stockpiled rice." It wasn't proper for NHK, whose revenues are guaranteed by the public, to move into business areas occupied by companies that rely on advertising and that have to compete on an equal footing with one another. It is especially a problem now, since NHK is by nature recession-proof, while commercial broadcasters are struggling.

NHK replied to this complaint by saying that it understood its "position," which could be taken to mean that NHK feels it is above such petty matters as audience share, advertising fees and accountability. Whenever the government questions its lack of transparency (pot calling kettle black, but whatever), NHK always raises the red "freedom of expression" flag, saying that it does not represent the government, a stance that would be admirable if NHK truly took advantage of its freedom. NHK talk shows are dull as dishwater because their announcers refuse to challenge public servants who make fatuous and empty statements.

So when NHK says it will be at the vanguard of the new terrestrial digital technology, I'm tempted to say, "Don't do me any favors," because in the long run it probably means paying more money for programming I'll be disappointed with, and another box to wedge into the nook. Is that what they mean by "cable-ready"?



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