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The countdown: six months and a day till TV goes digital

by Mark Schreiber

Quick: what happened in Japan on Sept. 10, 1960? A few people might recall that was the day Japan commenced color TV broadcasting. At the startup, color programs were few in number, but consumers still had four years and one month to buy a color set before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

It was not until 1973 — 13 years after the advent of color broadcasts — that the number of color sets in Japanese homes surpassed black and white.

This coming July 24, several million TV sets with cathode-ray tubes will display white noise, as Japan pulls the plug on analog broadcasting. The media seems determined to dwell on the negative aspects of chi-deji, as digital terrestrial TV broadcasting is called for short.

No one disputes the quality of the new ISDB-T (Integrated Services Digital Broadcasting — Terrestrial) technology, which will be far superior to the 1950s NTSC color standard, with its 525-line resolution. Nor have complaints yet been voiced about the increased number of channels — although declining revenues from advertising portend ever-smaller production budgets for programs.

But the media seems determined not to let analog TV go gently into the good night. First, it reminds readers that people residing in remote islands and mountainous areas with poor reception — no one is exactly sure how many — will be left without any TV. Likewise for some homes whose reception may be blocked by adjacent taller structures.

Many elderly people may not fully comprehend what’s happening or may lack the funds to replace their sets. To ensure they can keep watching, municipalities will distribute free digital converters that enable them to use their old sets. But some squabbles have arisen as to who will foot the bill for installation of new VHF antennas. Likewise for many residents of older apartments that share a common antenna, who are complaining over the high costs of rewiring their buildings.

In addition to residences, Shukan Gendai (Jan. 29) cites an estimate by the Association for Electric Home Appliances that some 3.7 million TVs in hotels, hospitals and rest homes will require replacement. A large hotel with, say, 100 or more sets in its rooms can anticipate outlays as much as ¥10 million just for rewiring — exceeding the cost of the new sets.

While major urban facilities such asTokyo’s Imperial Hotel are said to have completed preparations for the changeover, overall, the nationwide figure for hotels and ryokan (inns) may still be as low as 30 percent.

So who, aside from TV manufacturers, stands to benefit most from revamping the broadcast system? In a three-week series of articles appearing last September, Friday magazine alleged among other things that bureaucrats in the Ministry of General Affairs and Communications were exploiting the entrenched amakudari (“descent from heaven”) system, taking up lucrative post-career positions with organizations that have been set up to “oversee” the changeover. In addition to identifying 33 bureaucrats by name, the magazine pointed to 13 specific organizations, including the “Dempa Sangyo Kai” — recipient of ¥20.3 billion in government subsidies, and the “Joho Tsushin Kenkyukai” (¥46.1 billion).

Friday was also critical of the ministry’s system of allocating bandwidth frequencies, pointing out that in foreign countries, these are typically sold to the highest bidder. In other words, there was no reason to squelch analog TV broadcasts, which could continue indefinitely as long as someone’s willing to foot the bill for them. Halting analog TV arbitrarily — its frequencies will be allocated to mobile communications and a little-used emergency band — will deprive the treasury of a potential source of revenues.

In addition to the squeeze on consumers, the media has also called attention to the impact on the environment caused by discarding millions of old TVs. Use of lead in their picture tubes and in the solder on the circuit boards complicate recycling and generate toxic pollution. In 2010, the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association estimated 13.8 million TV sets were discarded, and this year it predicts another 11.77 million units will be disposed of. With many municipalities unable to deal with the sheer volume, concerns have been voiced that illegal dumping of discarded sets may reach into the hundreds of thousands, wreaking further damage to the environment.

For all the sound and fury, pundits have pointed out that both television and radio as we know it may already be technologically obsolete. An article in Aera (Jan. 17) warns that commercial radio is hurting, while Shukan Diamond (Jan. 15) reports that local TV network affiliates face disaster due to plummeting ad revenues. With increasingly sophisticated technologies and such new media as pay-per-view cable, satellite TV, the Internet and high-speed mobile communications all chipping away at conventional TV’s share, digital broadcasting may barely survive into its teens.