Digital ‘big switch’ is big con

Visit any electronics shop and you cannot escape reminders that in July 2011, Japan will end analog TV broadcasts and switch over to digital. After that time, existing analog TV sets will require adapters, but over the next 2 1/2 years most people are expected to discard their set for a digital model.

The 50-year-old NTSC analog technology currently in use is actually quite good, and while digital may offer some improvements in terms of viewing quality, the rationale for the switch-over concerns bandwidth allocation —-which will free up more channels — and not image quality per se.

And there’s the rub: I suppose millions of Japanese agree with me that it will be bad enough to lose a perfectly serviceable CRT TV to this enforced obsolescence; but what I really find objectionable is that this will almost certainly be a case of old wine in new wineskins, in that the “new” technology will afford no real improvement in the quality, content or variety of TV programming.

Take NHK. When not treated to deliberations from the floor of the National Diet, viewers are given the option of watching daylong broadcasts of the two annual high school baseball tournaments from Koshien (about 20 days out of the year), or five straight hours of sumo during the year’s six grand sumo tournaments (a total of 90 days out of the year).

While the switch-over to digital might enable an increase in the number of channels, it’s also safe to assume that NHK and the big five media groups (Asahi, Fuji-Sankei, Mainichi, Nikkei and Yomiuri) will maintain their privileged chokehold on TV broadcasting. In other words, more of the same, with an added dollop of re-runs, no doubt.

Due to overregulation of its broadcast industry, Japan lags behind almost every other Asian market in terms of TV entertainment. For far more reasonable outlays, the average home in Singapore, Taipei, Manila, Bangkok or Shanghai can receive several times the number of TV channels as its counterpart in Tokyo.

I recently visited a rural community in the northeastern United States and was amazed at the package offered by the cable TV provider — over 300 channels, including pay-per-view and view on demand. Since the latter programs can be downloaded and watched at the viewer’s discretion, there is no longer the need to purchase a DVD recorder.

But more than the huge number of channels, I was impressed by the terrific value offered to customers who, for a flat monthly rate, also get unlimited telephone calls anywhere within the continental United States and broadband Internet connections included in their package deal.

Japan’s vaunted reputation for high-tech electronics aside, this country is encumbered by overregulation clearly designed to benefit the usual vested interests — politicians, the major media groups and the retired bureaucrats they employ as “advisers.” As long as this cumbersome system persists, what’s the incentive to buy a digital TV? It will afford nothing new as an entertainment medium. Consumers are once again to be force-fed an overpriced technology that will not deliver the goods. Isn’t there an advocacy organization to promote their cause?

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