Japan stumbles in high-tech TV race

THE lead horse in the world's race to develop high-definition television (HDTV), has reared up and tossed its rider. Japan has poured well over $1 billion into the superior image technology since 1970, compared with about $200 million spent in the United States and $400 million in Europe. This week it announced that it will abandon its analog system in favor of a digital standard being developed in the US.

Japan's Posts and Telecommunications Ministry said the technology being developed by several American companies would more likely become the future world standard.

A digital system converts sounds and images of a broadcast into numerical codes, transmits them, and then converts the codes back into identical sounds and images in the home receiver. Analog systems use signals much like those used for TV and radio transmissions.

Both produce a super-sharp picture by increasing the number of scanning lines from the current standard of 525 to 1,125, and stretching the width-to-height ratio to match the wide screens in today's movie theaters.

Industry experts say the announcement is a stunning admission of a mistake by the Japanese. It is a costly move for the nation's electronics companies, who have long been world leaders in producing TV sets. By abandoning analog standards, giants such as Matsushita and Mitsubishi - who had predicted 1 million sets in use by next year - will now be behind in the race to manufacture the digital HDTV sets, expected to cost at least three times the cost of sets today.

Hideaki Kumano, vice minister of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, downplayed the debate yesterday. He said discussions about dropping Japan's system were academic because already 20,000 HDTV sets have been sold.

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