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Sunday, Dec. 28, 2008

MEDIA MIX

Critics switched off over digital-TV plans


Yukichi Amano is one of Japan's sharpest media critics, so it was disconcerting to see him on NHK several weeks ago pimping for digital TV.

As the date for the changeover from analog to digital broadcasts draws closer, NHK has starting selling the system to the public in a determined fashion, which is odd since no one has a choice in the matter — the government has mandated the switch. However, more than half the country's households still do not possess the proper equipment to receive digital broadcasts, which means if they don't get with the program by July 24, 2011, they will be stuck with what an NHK announcer called "empty boxes."

So NHK brought Amano in to sing the praises of digital on a special half-hour PR feature, and he did what was expected of him, at least up to a point. He talked about picture and sound quality, saying that digital was "perfect for watching sports" since it allowed you to "understand the details." But once the conversation turned to logistics — new antennas, converter boxes for the digitally challenged, dead reception zones — the chirpy announcers were clearly struggling to put a happy face on a development that was obviously going to be less convenient than it seemed.

Maybe Amano realized this, because the next day, in his regular Asahi Shimbun column, he practically railed against digital, specifically the commercial television spots reminding people of the changeover. "These commercials scream cheerfully, 'You must replace your old TV!' " he wrote, and, contrary to what he said on NHK, admitted, "I don't understand the benefits of digital." Though he knows the quality is better, such considerations only have an "abstract" appeal to the average person, who don't see the point of investing in new equipment if the content remains the same.

The public's blase attitude may spell trouble for the television industry, but one thing NHK and the media in general have been reluctant to report is that even the industry isn't ready for digital. On Oct. 25, a public symposium sponsored by the Commercial Broadcasters Labor Union and the Media Research Center discussed the possibility that all the nation's broadcasters will not realistically be able to change from analog to digital by the government-set date. Though invited to do so, the related bureaucracies did not dispatch representatives to the symposium, but they did send a statement insisting that everything will be ready by mid-2011.

Broadcast engineers at the symposium said that the government was sticking its head in the sand. The cost of switching to all-digital nationwide is huge, and, as ad revenues plunge, regional stations in particular just don't have the money to do it. It took four decades to provide all of Japan with complete television-signal coverage, and essentially the government is demanding the industry do the same thing in less than one decade with a technology that is more expensive and in an economic environment that makes normal day-to-day operations much more difficult.

NHK tries to make the switch look as painless as possible, but it can't hide the fact that a substantial investment is required. The cheapest digital TV today is at least ¥50,000, and while the required UHF antenna only costs ¥5,000, installation is around ¥30,000. The government has said it will subsidize converter tuners for people who can't afford new TVs, going as far as to propose free converters for people on welfare. What they can't do is get people excited about it.

Forty-seven percent of households had changed to digital as of September, which sounds encouraging with more than two years remaining until the switch, but what this statistic really indicates is that those inclined to change TVs and who can afford to do so already have. Last March, the rate was 44 percent, which means in six months it only rose 3 points despite the big industrywide campaign to sell digital TVs prior to the Olympics. At this rate, the portion of households with digital TVs in July 2011 will be less than 70 percent.

Some see the digital push as yet another scheme to boost consumer spending, and while everyone agrees that the medium should progress as technology improves, not everyone likes the idea that the government made a decision without carefully considering the ramifications. Korea is also working on full-digital TV, though the country has pushed back the starting date once already. The United States, which delayed its start twice, will go fully digital in February, even if, according to the publisher Consumers Union, millions of Americans will not have made the switch by then.

In America, the problem is less pressing because more than 70 percent of TVs are hooked up to cable. In Japan, it's the confusion of reception options that makes the digital mandate feel like a boondoggle. Only a few years ago, NHK pushed high-definition satellite broadcasts and commercial networks launched BS stations requiring special tuners. No one watches those channels because they are redundant, featuring rebroadcasts of programs already available on the networks' terrestrial stations, telemarketing shows and infomercials. Even NHK doesn't seem to have enough programming to fill up its three BS channels and the government has asked it to drop one of them. Then there's the other satellite system, CS, which requires yet another special antenna and tuner.

Internet TV, which is becoming more widespread, could quickly make digital broadcasts obsolete, since only online technology can provide the kind of interactive services we've been told are the next evolutionary step in television. But as Amano pointed out in his column, all this electronic wizardry means nothing if all that's on offer is the same old junk. On NHK, he didn't say this as strongly as did actress Hideko Hara, who also appeared on the PR program. "What people want," she said, "and what TV gives them just don't match."



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