Japanese TV Enters Multichannel Era with Start of Digital Satellite Broadcasting
NOVEMBER 27, 1996
Four Networks in 1997, 400 Channels in Couple of Years
Following the launch in October of a network offering digital broadcasting via communications satellite, Japanese television at last has entered the era of multichannel broadcasting. This first station, PerfecTV, is expected to be joined by three more networks next year, and together the foursome will offer about 400 channels in the next couple of years. PerfecTV, which is backed by a leading Japanese trading company, has begun operations with 57 channels; it plans to increase the number to 100 early next year. The channels offer a range of programs, including movies, news, sports coverage, traffic information, and English conversation lessons. To receive the service, viewers need a special tuner and antenna; the tuner-antenna set sells for about 50,000 yen (455 dollars at a rate of 110 yen to the dollar) at discount stores.
When subscribing, viewers pay an initial subscription fee of 2,900 yen (26 dollars) and then a basic monthly fee of 290 yen (2.6 dollars), which enables them to receive such programs as traffic and shopping information and program information for free. For other programs, viewers pay separate fees according to the channel.
So far viewers seem to have responded favorably to the new digital service, and manufacturers of the receiving equipment report difficulties in keeping up with demand. The company operating PerfecTV exudes confidence, too. According to a spokesperson, the initial target of 300,000 subscribers by March of next year looks like being achieved much earlier than expected.
Next year three other networks will join PerfecTV in the digital broadcasting market: DirecTV, formed by a U.S. electric appliance maker and a Japanese trading company; JSkyB, formed by an Australian media conglomerate and a Japanese software company; and SkyD, which already operates analog broadcasting via communications satellite in Japan. Since at present viewers would require different equipment to receive programs from these four stations, the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications has asked the networks and manufacturers to commercialize a single set of equipment, so that viewers can receive all four networks using the same equipment.
Media Battle with Existing Networks; Wider Viewing Choice
The main feature of digital broadcasting technology is its compression of information, such as images and sound, which makes it possible to transmit up to eight channels via communications satellite in place of just one analog channel. Hence the possibility of multichannel broadcasting. Also, digital broadcasting has less interference and blurred images compared with the analog method. And in addition, with digital broadcasting it is possible to transmit not only images but also various other kinds of data, so in the near future it should become possible for viewers to use their TV sets to book movie or concert tickets, take part in two-way quiz shows from their own home, and hook up to personal computer communication networks. In other words, the time will probably come when the barrier between broadcasting and communications is brought down.
In contrast, existing TV broadcasting is completely analog, with only a small number of channels. In the case of Tokyo, there are seven networks offering eight channels via terrestrial waves, two networks offering three channels via broadcasting satellite, and two networks operating 14 channels via communications satellite. Even cable television has only a maximum of 30 channels.
In the United States, the most advanced nation in terms of media, digital broadcasting via communications satellite got off to a start in 1994. At present there are five companies offering programs on several hundred channels to about three million households. The development in the United States so far has been for cable television to take away terrestrial-wave viewers and then for digital broadcasting to take away cable-television subscribers.
Cable television has a small diffusion rate in Japan, so for the time being digital broadcasting is likely to take on terrestrial broadcasting in an intense media battle. At the moment the terrestrial commercial networks, which do not charge fees, and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation), which does, have a lot of power and overwhelming strength on the program production side. But new firms are appearing one after the other in the business of supplying programs for digital broadcasting, and the competition that these startups bring should lead to improvements in software quality. Indeed, the day might come when the existing networks lose their supremacy in this field. Meanwhile, it can be expected that some of the existing networks, instead of just seeking to protect their own terrestrial turf, will take the offensive and themselves branch out into digital broadcasting.
Whatever the case, if the broadcasting system becomes more diverse, if programs come to cover a broader range of fields and types, and if new services become available, then viewers will have a wider range of choice for sure. The outcome of this media battle will depend a great deal on how viewers measure the balance between better-quality programs and larger fees.