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Perks to Be Slow for Japanese Digital TV

November 28, 2003

TOKYO (AP) _ ``Digital is coming!″ signs hang in stores packed with new TVs promising dazzling imagery, but any buzz about Monday’s start of digital television broadcasting in Japan has yet to catch on in much of the country.

High-definition digital TV will reach just parts of the country for now, and although potential viewership is put at 12 million households, the tally might be half that because of Japan’s mountainous and cramped terrain. Actual viewers could be even fewer, at about 300,000.

The Japanese government is determined to make digital broadcasts the nation’s standard, and has vowed to phase out analog by 2011.

The economic perks will total 200 trillion yen ($1.8 trillion) over the next decade, according to the ministry overseeing broadcasting, as people rush out to buy digital TVs, broadcasters invest in equipment and new kinds of services blossom.

The government is investing 180 billion yen ($1.6 billion) to help get the system started, and is targeting the end of 2006 for making it available nationwide.

``Do we really need it? There’s hardly anything you want to watch on TV as it is,″ said Eiichi Oshida, a professor of media studies at Ryukoku University in Kyoto.

Digital TV creates twice as many lines on a screen, delivering a more vivid and theater-like picture. It also offers interactive possibilities, such as viewer surveys, although Japan won’t have many such programs anytime soon.

The United States has had digital broadcasting since 1998, and Congress has ordered the TV industry to switch entirely to digital by 2007. After that, consumers who don’t subscribe to a cable or satellite service would need digital tuners, either inside a TV or in a special set-top box.

England, Sweden, Australia and South Korea also already have digital TV, although Spain’s commercial digital broadcasting outfit went bust.

Japanese satellite subscribers have been able to get digital TV broadcasts since 2001, drawing 4.7 million households. Receiving the new terrestrial broadcasts requires a tuner that costs about 80,000 yen ($730) here.

Fully enjoying its advantages requires a new TV. Prices vary, but a set with a 50-inch plasma screen, which maximizes the power of digital TV to deliver a theater-like visual splendor, costs 800,000 yen ($7,300).

``I want one but it’s too expensive,″ said cab driver Toshiaki Araki. ``The prices will drop once sales pick up.″

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