While U.S. broadcasters scramble to meet upcoming digital hardware and delivery requirements, and while producers who work between continents play a guessing game in terms of the endurance of a particular HD standard, there is no such confusion at Japan’s public broadcaster. As far as the president of NHK is concerned, Hi-Vision will prevail. Says Katsuji Ebisawa (through an interpreter), ‘Of course we understand that the U.S. and Europe have set out with their own formats, but we believe, with our Hi-Vision, that we are running ahead.’
It’s not hard to understand his message – he’s been traveling the world to push the ‘development and dissemination’ of Hi-Vision. According to Ebisawa, broadcasting is ‘an expression of culture founded on technology,’ and since he became NHK prez four years ago, he says the pubcaster has been more than willing to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to HD research and development. With an annual budget of about US$6 billion, Ebisawa says NHK has spent US$2 billion on Hi-Vision R&D to date. ‘Our labs are the best by nature and the largest in scale. We have been able to come so far in Hi-Vision because NHK, as a driving force, made appropriate budgeting for R&D and program production… In the U.S. and Europe it would be difficult to obtain the same kind of situation.’
The Hi-Vision revolution in Japan, which began development in 1964, started on satellite, which is logical given the mountains and small islands scattered around the archipelago. The Hi-Vision digital satellite service is currently in 1.6 million of 45 million households, and another 15 million homes receive NHK’s analog satellite service. Digital terrestrial broadcasts will be introduced in some areas of Japan by 2003, with plans to completely phase out analog broadcasting within ten years.
While the NHK Hi-Vision standard (basically, 1125 scan lines and an aspect ratio of 16:9) was knocked back from being recognized as the HDTV production standard by European delegates of a sub-group of the International Telecommunications Union in 1986, the standard won a recent battle. In March 2000, Hi-Vision was recognized as the global HDTV studio standard by the ITU. Early this summer, Ebisawa was at Canada’s Banff Television Festival to hand out the inaugural NHK President’s Prize. NHK hopes the CDN$25,000 award, which this year went to Wild Asia: Creatures of the Thaw (an international copro between NHK, NHNZ and the Discovery Channel) will encourage producers to produce and post-produce HDTV programs.
In terms of domestic promotion, Ebisawa says his job entails ‘repeatedly asking’ Japanese manufacturers to bring down the prices of digital receivers. On his end, he believes the other key to mainstreaming the technology is top-notch content. Unfortunately for doc-makers, Ebisawa’s emphasis has been, and will continue to be, live events. The broadcaster – having aired the World Cup Finals and all the Olympic Games since L.A. in Hi-Vision, not to mention last year’s Democratic and Republican conventions in the U.S. – is constructing a Hi-Vision camera for the International Space Station and at least two for the moon. They’ve recently laid fiber optic cable from the U.S. to Tokyo for the purposes of airing New York Mets and Seattle Mariners home games in Hi-Vision to its Japanese audience. Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners and Tsuyoshi Shinjo of the Mets have been hot commodities for the Japanese public.
The NHK labs are still churning out innovation. 3D Hi-Vision (a system that doesn’t require the viewer to wear glasses) has already been developed, and archival footage has been collected from recent Olympic Games. Up next will be an ultra-HD TV, one that boasts 4000 scanning lines. Says Ebisawa, ‘Yes, we’re thinking ahead.’