Japan Lays an Egg

November 29, 1991

With its historic introduction of regular, full scale high-definition television, Japan has ushered in a new era in mass communications. Japan also has graphically demonstrated that it's not just Americans who are capable of making egregious misjudgments of the market. Any nation can.

After more than a decade's effort, Japan, the world leader in consumer electronics, has brought out television sets that cost $30,000 each to show a picture made up of 1,125 lines of broadcast information. U.S. television uses 525 lines, so Japan's new system is an order of magnitude sharper. But not so in France, whose SECAM system has sent high-quality 819-line pictures for 20 years, and neither its sets nor the dual-system sets sold in Belgium, which also receive Germany's 625-line PAL TV signals, cost $30,000 each.

The Japanese government had projected conversion of 1.1 percent, or 1.32 million, of that country's 120 million television viewers to the high-definition system by now. But the 2,000 sets sold to date fall far short of that. Can't you see consumers in Osaka and Kyoto mumbling to themselves, "Nearly 4 million yen for a television set?"

Clearly, the planners of this historic system could not. Note their companion videocassette recorder, introduced in time for Christmas, which retails for $115,000 (nearly 15 million yen).

A final nail in the "new" system's coffin is its continuous-wave or analog transmission. Engineers have long known they could put more lines into a TV picture, but this scheme eats up space on the already crowded broadcast spectrum -- territory that is jealously guarded by competitors from beeper and two-way radio services to mobile phones to private data networks to commercial television and radio. That's one reason U.S. regulators favor digital transmission both for cellular phones as well as new TV systems. Japan's electronics giants are joining American companies to push ahead in this area, too, but at home they expected sodai gomi ("big garbage") day to get rid of many old-system televisions, as now happens with outmoded stereos.

The consumers apparently decided the big garbage was still in the showrooms, this time. That's par for the course when a nation's economy booms so strongly its leaders see it as unstoppable. Americans could tell the Japanese all about that disease, and its long-term waste of resources on projects that neither advance domestic technology nor prepare manufacturing for market wars overseas. This time, it appears they are finding out all about it by themselves.

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