The future of HDTV -- Why the Japanese technology is taking so long to come to America

Picture this: Americans are still sitting there watching TV in black-and-white while, across the ocean, viewers in other countries have had color TV for years already.

That’s pretty much the equivalent of what’s happening right now with HDTV, or high-definition television, the extraordinary new technology that offers a video picture nearly three times as sharp as today’s TV — on a wide screen and with digital sound. Americans won’t be able to see it in their homes for years; yet the Japanese are watching it today.

Last week, the first home HDTV sets hit stores throughout Japan-at staggering prices ranging from $18,000 to $34,000 per set (because every set is virtually custom-made with exotic new types of components). These prices are a bit steep, considering that there is only one hour of ”Hi-Vision” currently broadcast each day, and it consists mainly of sports and big events like last month’s enthronement of Emperor Akihito. But HDTV broadcast time is due to increase to eight hours in just six months, and the price of the TV sets is expected to drop to $7,500 by 1996.

Japanese companies are legendary for their telescopic long-term planning, and the managements of electronics giants Sony and Matsushita say that HDTV was an important part of their thinking when they bought Columbia Pictures and MCA (parent of Universal Pictures). The thinking reflects the principle of supply and supply: By producing movies in HDTV, as Sony-owned Columbia will do in mid-1991, these ”hardware-software” hybrids can provide themselves with the entertainment the manufacturers need to sell the HDTV sets they’re making. Japanese executives are fond of likening entertainment and technology to two wheels of the same car, and HDTV is clearly part of the Japanese leave-the-driving-to-us program.

In sharp contrast, while high-def is one of the most talked-about subjects in American entertainment circles, so far all it amounts to is talk. Full-speed development of HDTV in the U.S. has been delayed again and again by ongoing wrangling among the video powers over the technical details of a transmission standard. American TV broadcasters and some U.S.-based TV-set manufacturers have been arguing for one HDTV standard, and the Japanese companies have been fighting in favor of another. The deadline set by the FCC for nailing down a U.S. high-def broadcast standard is 1993, and only when this controversy has been resolved will any TV stations be able to telecast a wide-screen Roseanne.

So far there are home HDTV sets only in Japan, but high-definition production facilities seem to be popping up like Bart Simpson dolls worldwide. Recently, the Japanese government-run television network NHK has opened a high-definition production facility in New York. And last month saw the first HDTV Film Festival in Tokyo, featuring everything from computer animation to sports to commercials and attended by HDTV filmmakers from all over the world.

Not all forward-thinking people are revved up about high resolution. U.S. economist George Gilder has called it a ”dog,” suggesting that American researchers could better spend their time refining more versatile technologies such as fiber optics. Ever-iconoclastic director David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart) finds HDTV simply ”unnecessary.” Theatrical movies and TV programming ”should be two separate things,” says Lynch. ”The movies shouldn’t look like TV, and TV shouldn’t look like the movies.”

They aren’t likely to in the U.S. any time soon. In Japan, HDTV has become only a small-scale reality after better than a decade of intense cooperation among a variety of industries and the government. That kind of cooperation is traditional in Japan, but it’s practically subversive in the competition-oriented U.S. corporate culture.

Of course, that culture is exactly what the analysts say may change as the Japanese buy out more and more American entertainment companies.