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Sunday, July 24, 2011
Today is D-Day for analog television
Sony recently announced it would discontinue production of the MiniDisc Walkman in September. It was just over a year ago that the company dropped the cassette Walkman, so within the space of 18 months two media will have bitten the dust. Though audiophiles may lament the end of another era, to most people it simply means something else to throw away. Obsolescence is built into technological progress.
Nevertheless, the economic windfall that home electronics makers have enjoyed with the changeover from analog to digital terrestrial broadcasts seems to be over. Analog broadcasts end today, so if the TV set you currently use only has an analog tuner, you won't be able to watch terrestrial broadcasts after 12 noon. For months now you've been reminded of the impending change with distracting visual announcements on your screen counting off the days until the end. TV stations, with NHK in the lead, have been offering advice on how to make the switch as painless as possible; and consequently there's been a run on digital TVs and tuners in the past month that's been so intense deliveries aren't guaranteed at some stores until the end of August. Significantly, 80 percent of the demand has been for old inventory sold at discount, according to the Asahi Shimbun, which means no profits for the manufacturers.
Digital stragglers probably don't have the money to spend on newer, more expensive equipment. They're likely just getting the bare minimum so as not to be left behind. In fact, hundreds of thousands of households — not to mention institutional users like hospitals and hotels, which push the number into the millions — are not expected to make the change in time. In some areas, it may not be worth it. In Tokushima Prefecture, for instance, analog tuners can receive up to 10 terrestrial stations. Analog signals still provide a picture even if they're weak, and seven of the available channels in Tokushima are broadcasters in neighboring prefectures. In order to receive a visible digital broadcast, however, the signal needs to be robust, which means starting today Tokushima residents can only watch Shikoku Broadcasting and the two NHK terrestrial channels. In remote areas where the government has determined that digital signals cannot be received, "digital refugees" can use antennas designed to pick up television by broadcast satellite — or BS — signals to watch terrestrial broadcasts, but Tokushima doesn't qualify since it does receive terrestrial digital signals. The problem is that it only has three local channels.
This lack of choice cannot directly be blamed on the digital changeover, but some see a conspiracy, in particular the weekly Shukan Post, which has run a series of articles over the last year that suggests the switch was implemented so that bureaucrats and TV networks could solidify their positions. Bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions are common among broadcast companies in other countries. How come there have been none in Japan for the past 50 years? The Post claims that networks ignore "market principles" since the government protects their interests in return for noncontentious coverage of their policies and activities. Any "new media" would jeopardize this relationship, so by limiting licenses on a prefectural basis the government keeps the same old companies in the loop.
The Post cites the history of BS technology. As a national broadcast standard for mountainous Japan, BS digital makes more sense than digital terrestrial because everyone can receive it and the cost is much less: You only need one satellite in the sky instead of thousands of relay stations on the ground. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, which oversees the airwaves, granted BS licenses first to the commercial networks. In the beginning, the idea was to charge viewers to watch BS content, which explains the B-CAS card that all subsequent TV sets come with, informing NHK if you're watching BS broadcasts (so they can bill you for it) and allowing BS subscription concerns like WOWOW and Star Channel to switch on your service. But this plan faded as broadcasters discovered no one would pay, and for good reason: The content was junk, mostly reruns, infomercials and promotional variety shows. The Post implies that this was intentional. Commercial stations actually wanted the public not to watch BS so as to discourage new companies from entering the field. The result is that only a few have, with disappointing results.
Other developed countries have made the changeover from analog to digital, but the Post emphasizes that consumers in those countries have alternatives. In the United States, less than 20 percent of households receive only terrestrial broadcasts. More than half have cable TV and 30 percent satellite. In Germany, the number that receives only terrestrial accounts for less than 5 percent. In Japan about 50 percent of households have access to cable TV but often as a countermeasure to a lack of local stations. For the most part, the basic service offered by cable TV providers includes only the main terrestrial stations plus a few meaningless channels. In order to get some more interesting but mostly redundant channels, it costs more. Cable is not a viable alternative to terrestrial broadcasts the way it is in the U.S. and Europe.
The reason so much time and expense (¥360 billion in taxpayer money) have gone into promoting the changeover, according to the Post, is that the industry will do anything to maintain terrestrial broadcasting as the Japanese standard, since it means they don't have to alter the way they do things. This could explain why Japanese programming is so bad: There's no competition and, therefore, no incentive to improve and diversify. It could also explain all those people who have not made the change to digital. To the major media outlets they're ignorant or lazy, but maybe they've just decided that TV isn't worth it.