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Broadcast-satellite digital television programs went on the air three years ago in Japan amid great fanfare and expectations they would quickly bring higher quality pictures and sound to a large number of households.

Aug. 27 marked the 1,000th day since NHK and five privately run network television stations launched the new digital TV technology in December 2000.

There was no marked celebration to observe the occasion, however, as the system has failed to gather much momentum against a backdrop of slow adoption by the public and uncertainty over its future.

When the system was inaugurated three years ago, the telecommunications minister at the time said the objective was to see 10 million households equipped with BS digital tuners by the 1,000th day of digital broadcasts.

As of the end of July, however, the number of such households totaled 4.32 million, according to NHK.

A source at a private TV company said that “10 million households on the 1,000th day” was probably an idea that just popped into the head of the minister.

Television industry people said at the time that viewers would be able to enjoy higher quality pictures and sound via BS digital TV programs as well as data communications.

NHK President Katsuji Ebisawa blamed TV tuners for the poor performance of BS digital.

In addition to factors that include the prolonged economic doldrums, Ebisawa cited delays by tuner manufacturers in coping with the inauguration of BS digital TV, along with the initial high prices of tuners, which initially sold for about 100,000 yen. They now retail for around 20,000 yen.

The volume of advertising was firm in the first two years but has fallen in the third year.

The five BS digital TV stations have been operating in the red, with their accumulated losses totaling 71 billion yen, 2.4 billion yen of which came in their third year.

The key network stations are supporting the programs by increasing the amounts of their capital.

Industry sources said the BS stations, TV manufacturers, advertisers and viewers are all in a state of “shrinkage” in the face of a vicious circle involving the economy, prices, programming and the spread of new-technology televisions and tuners.

People concerned place great expectations on the day when the number of households with BS tuners totals 5 million.

An executive of a BS station said, “Once the number clears the 5 million mark, the speed will run at double (what it is now) to reach 10 million.”

Meanwhile, the Public Management, Home Affairs, Posts and Telecommunications Ministry has set 2010 as the year to end BS analog broadcasting in an attempt to urge TV stations to shift to BS digital television.

TV stations are poised to continue carrying out joint drives to promote BS digital broadcasting, including a BS digital movie festival they held this summer.

Industry sources say terrestrial digital broadcasting, due to start in December in the three major Japanese cities of Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, will be the key to the future of BS digital services. After December, they say, the sale of digital TVs will go into full gear.

Such TVs will have built-in tuners capable of receiving BS digital as well as communications satellite broadcasting.

But there will be a price barrier, with such TV sets costing between 200,000 yen and 300,000 yen for the cheapest models.

Seiichiro Ujiie, representative director of Nippon Television Network Corp., said: “We’ve let BS serve as an engine thus far, but from now on there will be two engines (BS and terrestrial digital) to pull (BS broadcasting). Terrestrial and BS will have to complement each other.”

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