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A True HD Visionary

The continued difficulty of the transition to digital broadcasting here in the U.S. often seems to resemble an adolescent's entering puberty. The growing pains seem uniquely personal. The U.S. broadcasting industry looks in the mirror and wonders whether the difficulties will ever go away: The blemishes, the awkwardness—is this all something everyone experiences, or is it just me?

A conversation with Katsuji Ebisawa, president of NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster, makes clear that the difficulties of the digital transition are not a result of the U.S. approach. The pains and difficulties are just part of growing up. Japan is a few years ahead of the U.S. in the transition to HDTV. And like the older sibling who has survived puberty and is on the track to maturity, the Japanese experience holds out some optimism that tomorrow will be okay.

Learning from lumps

Japan's HDTV transmission system, Hi-Vision, has been around for more than 10 years. Today, more than 3.4 million homes (out of approximately 47 million) receive HDTV signals via a mix of digital satellite and cable services (about 1.7 million each). And, with plasma and LCD technologies and sales beginning to ramp up, consumers are embracing the improved pictures. But, even though NHK worked closely with consumer-electronics manufacturers more than 30 years ago, Ebisawa says, there is still plenty of work to be done.

"In order to make the transition successful, it's imperative that the broadcast side and the consumer manufacturer side, which could be viewed as two inseparable wheels on a vehicle, have to work together," says Ebisawa. "We need mass-produced receivers. Remember, it took 30 years for radio and then 30 years for TV to become established in Japan."

Japan's HDTV system took its lumps on the international stage in the early days because it uses the MUSE analog satellite transmission system.

"We did have problems proliferating it on a global market, and we had lots of initial rejection from broadcasters in Europe and in the U.S.," says Ebisawa. "But, later on, MPEG-2 came out and allowed us to deliver HD programming."

Like his U.S. broadcast counterparts, Ebisawa says the transition requires affordable DTV and HDTV products.

"Broadcasters are continuing to provide high-quality programs," he says. "If the manufacturers would only begin mass-producing affordable HDTV sets that are easy to operate, it should penetrate at a more rapid pace. In that sense, I do sometimes complain to my friends on the manufacturing side."

Ebisawa is optimistic that costs will drop, because he sees Japanese manufacturers investing in the facilities needed to drive down costs. But, he adds, it may take a couple of years for consumers to see the benefit of the investment.

One interesting aspect of the Japanese transition is what is happening on the terrestrial side. HDTV from terrestrial Japanese broadcasters is still nonexistent because of Japan's geography. With mountain ranges, valleys and islands, terrestrial broadcasting requires twice as many transmitters as it takes to cover the U.S.—even though Japan is roughly 4% the size of the U.S.

"That means the airwaves are 50 times as crowded as in the U.S., so it takes time to alter frequencies to fit the new terrestrial digital service," Ebisawa explains. There are 47 million TV households in Japan, and roughly 4.3 million will require frequency alteration to can receive the signals. That alteration will cost $1.5 billion, and Ebisawa expects some digital terrestrial broadcasting by the end of 2003. Japan will convert to full digital terrestrial broadcasts by July 24, 2011, when analog signals will be terminated.

"Seeing is believing," Ebisawa likes to say of HDTV. And he is doing is best to make others see. During the World Cup this past summer, he showed off HDTV to the BBC. The BBC was so impressed a fiber-optic link transmitted the match between Brazil and England back to the UK so people at the BBC could see what all the fuss was about.

Broadening content palate

NHK is working with other worldwide public-broadcasting organizations like the BBC and PBS to co-produce events in HDTV. For the BBC, which has no interest in HDTV broadcasts, the productions will future-proof content for international distribution. For NHK, it broadens the content palate, something that will definitely be done next year with HD broadcasts from Antarctica as well as from the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station.

For all the talk of technology, Ebisawa says he hopes to continue to use his opportunity at NHK as a way to promote mutual understanding among different civilizations and to address global issues like food, energy, education and even juvenile delinquencies. Ebisawa was honored for his work in the industry last week when he received the International Emmy Directorate Award from the International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences not only for his technical vision but for his vision of what broadcasting is ultimately about. Ebisawa created Japan's emergency broadcast system, something important to a nation beset by natural disasters.

"Television means a far-distant dream, and it's technology that realizes the viewing of the far-distant dream. In the future, we'll see lots of new tools emerging, not only cable and the Internet. For me, it's a seamless challenge to search for new technology. But these are only tools," he says. "We need to commit ourselves to deliver programs that will enrich the audience."