Lack of Programming Stalls Japanese DTV Sales, Analysts Say

Digital television sets are interesting, but not compelling, because there's not much to watch on them. That seems to be the consensus among Japanese consumers, who are giving the new sets the cold shoulder, according to a May 25 report from the Japanese news agency Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Inc.

Japanese domestic shipments of DTVs dropped below 20,000 units in April, the report states, and manufacturers may cut prices to prime the sales pump. Last year was a good one for television makers like Toshiba, which sold 160,000 sets with digital tuners. The market momentum stalled when consumers found there was scant DTV programming available, despite the inauguration of a new digital broadcast satellite in December 2000. Toshiba experienced such an inventory glut that it halted domestic production and shifted the manufacture of digital TVs to a picture tube plant in Dalian, China.

Sony officials acknowledged that some "sales-bolstering measures" would be needed to improve the situation. The company's 32" high-definition sets retail for approximately 300,000 yen ($2500 US) in Japan, or almost twice as much as analog widescreen models.

Each Japanese TV manufacturer has invested 10 billion yen in the development of digital television, according to the Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industry Association, but domestic digital TV shipments for fiscal year 2000 amounted to only 191,000 units. The industry had hoped to double factory-to-dealer shipments in 2001, but now estimates that this year's figures may not surpass last year's.

Like their American counterparts, Japanese consumer electronics companies say the biggest obstacle to market acceptance is the lack of high-quality programming that takes advantage of all that DTV has to offer. In the US, the problem has been exacerbated by the refusal of cable providers to carry digital signals. Both Japan and the US have transition schedules to adhere to, with Japanese analog broadcasting expected to vanish by 2010. The original US goal of shutting off analog transmitters by 2006 will probably not be reached. "The next few years during the analog-to-digital transition period may be the hardest," the report stated.