TOKYO -- Finally, after all the debate over whether high-definition television will be a revolutionary technology for consumers and national economies, the vaunted sets went on sale this week in Japan.
They cost $34,000 apiece and the special-format broadcasts for HDTV are shown for only an hour a day. But for the three big electronics companies that have begun selling the world's first high-definition sets -- Sony, Matsushita and Hitachi -- the high cost and limited programming are no cause for distress at the outset. They are marketing HDTV now to show the dimensions of Japan's technological lead over the United States and Europe in this field and to whip up public demand for television sets that have the clarity and wide-screen look of a movie-theater screen.
The giant-screen HDTVs are already being installed in hotel lobbies, post offices and town halls all over Japan, where crowds can gather to watch; there is even one in the waiting area down the hall from Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu's office.
These days the screens are being filled with a sparing selection of big sporting matches and colorful events that showcase the technology, like the enthronement ceremonies last month of Emperor Akihito, broadcast in what Japan calls "Hi-Vision." Next year, Japan's giant state-run broadcaster, NHK, plans to increase its HDTV broadcasts from one hour to eight hours a day.
"It is much like the first transistor radio, or the first Walkman, or the first home VCRs," said Hisafumi Yamada, a manager in Sony's high-definition business development division. "You have to do something at the first stage, to get people accustomed to the idea. We think the demand is out there."
Experimenting on the sales shelves is nothing new here, especially in high technology, where Japanese consumers often test the first models. Five years from now, manufacturers say, they expect that more than a million sets will have been sold in Japan. By that time, the price is expected to drop to about $7,500.
But for Japan's electronics industry, the first consumer HDTVs is not only a chance to test public reaction to a technology that has already cost upward of $1 billion. It is also a chance to test corporate strategies.
It is no accident that the first sets are reaching the market just as the Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. begins to digest its $6.13 billion purchase last month of MCA, the parent of Universal Studios. Along with Columbia Pictures, purchased last year by Sony, Universal is expected to quickly become a testing ground for new video "software" -- the industry's jargon for movies and other forms of entertainment -- that will exploit HDTV's features.
Sony has already set up HDTV production equipment on Columbia's lots, in an effort to convince directors that the images they can record on videotape are as rich and warm as those they get on film -- and far easier to edit.