Japan Training for New Sport: Channel Surfing


Tokyo homemaker Takako Hida, 26, is fed up with Japanese television--the “stupid” quiz shows, music programs that “always have the same singers and the same songs” and current affairs shows with “meaningless themes.”

Arguably, that is about to change: The blessing of 350 TV channels will soon descend on Japan. And while more television is rarely linked with more individualism, media executives in this homogenous nation are touting the explosion in television fare just that way.

“As a team, Japanese are usually very strong, but individually sometimes they hesitate to express their own views and opinions,” intones Masakazu Namiki, vice president of Japan Sky Broadcasting Co., the 150-channel satellite venture being launched next year by mogul Rupert Murdoch.


Multichannel cable television never fully developed here, and Namiki says the half a dozen broadcast stations available to most viewers reinforce the group mentality by carrying “almost the same information, the same news, almost the same type of dramas and sports.”

“Nevertheless, even Japanese have different views,” Namiki said. “If we have 150 different channels, we may be able to encourage different types of thinking, different types of philosophies, different lifestyles. This society ought to accept differences.”

Stay tuned on that. But there is opportunity of some sort here, where a fierce three-way competition for the Japanese market is beginning. Otherwise the seemingly ubiquitous Murdoch wouldn’t be jumping in. Along with Sony Corp. and other key Japanese partners, he will launch JSkyB next spring.

But some say he may already be too late. Nobody here underestimates Murdoch and his partners, but JSkyB will face extraordinarily stiff competition from rivals with deep pockets and sizable head starts.

One of them, PerfecTV, is backed by top Japanese trading companies and is already up and running with 80 channels, soon to be 100. Another, DirecTV Japan, due to start broadcasting 100 channels late this year, marks an attempt by parent Hughes Electronics Corp. to replicate its dominance of the U.S. direct-broadcast satellite TV market.

Many think somebody has to fail.

“It is impossible for all three of them to survive,” said Dentsu Research Institute analyst Masahiro Yotsumoto, reflecting a widely held view.


Yet there are strong reasons for foreign firms to take the plunge in Japan.

“Everything is getting very much more expensive, so we need to get more use out of each successful program,” Murdoch said during a recent Tokyo visit, explaining his entry into the Japanese market. Murdoch’s News Corp. owns filmmaker 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

Yotsumoto noted that a broadcasting company can offer more money for programs if it knows they will be broadcast in many countries. Thus, “by going into the global market, they have a better chance of getting good programs. . . . Their buying power becomes much stronger.”

Yotsumoto cited car racing as an example: The mass audience usually required by television may only be interested in the finals, but a satellite service providing 100 channels would have use for all the elimination rounds, because it aims to serve a multitude of individual interests. If the races can be shown worldwide, so much the better.

The expectation that a year from now three competing firms will be scrambling to fill as many as 350 satellite channels airing in the world’s second-largest economy promises expanded markets for all kinds of Hollywood productions.

Despite her criticism of lowbrow Japanese television, Hida, for example, said she would “especially like to watch American sitcoms.”

As they do in the United States, satellite broadcasters will offer a variety of programming packages, typically with about 20 channels, to fit different tastes, with monthly subscription fees expected to total $30 or less.


The mix will include both Japanese and foreign programming, and eventually some data or text channels. Also tentatively planned are ways for customers to purchase recorded music or videos broadcast directly from a satellite into a home recording box, which could then be saved permanently for a fee.

Eventually the mix could include video on demand or even computer software on demand, with order signals relayed through the Internet and services delivered by direct satellite broadcast to the home.


As illustrated by Murdoch’s decision June 11 to sell his American Sky Broadcasting satellite television assets to Primestar Partners, rivals in this business can suddenly become partners.

“In the United States, what we’ve just seen happen is some industry consolidation,” Hughes Electronics Chairman Michael Armstrong said here this month. “It wouldn’t be surprising to see that kind of activity unfold in Japan. . . . You don’t have to go to Harvard Business School to figure out that fewer platforms going after the same potential may be a better business.”

But for now at least, all three satellite service providers are plunging ahead as competitors. All plan to cater to--and reinforce--fairly narrow interests in much of their programming.


While much of it will simply be old movies and television shows, PerfecTV is already proving that variety is possible in Japan. For example, it is airing Korean-language channels, which serve a large but often nearly invisible minority. A Brazilian channel carries programming in Portuguese. The M Channel, which costs $270 a month and is aimed at business people, is devoted purely to education in marketing skills.


PerfecTV’s pay-per-view Learning Channel offers lessons on such subjects as computer software, while the Go and Shogi Channel is devoted purely to the Japanese equivalents of checkers and chess.

Among those targeted by DirecTV Japan are people interested in French culture and music. It recently held a news conference at the French ambassador’s residence highlighted by a live performance by the French singer Clementine, who is popular here. DirecTV Japan arranged that mini-concert to promote the European music video channel MCM International, which it plans to air.

But Japanese viewers will have to get used to paying for their television--and to having choices.

“I’m not sure everybody’s going to be real happy with the idea of paying money to watch television,” said homemaker Naoko Yamada, 50. “And it’s a hassle to pick 20 or 30 channels out of 350. I would have a hard time choosing.”

Etsuko Kawase of The Times’ Tokyo bureau contributed to this report.