Digital media's rush to portability leaps past hurdles

TOKYO — While millions of Japanese squeezed into bars this summer to catch soccer’s World Cup tournament, thousands more peered into specially equipped mobile phones and car navigation systems to view digital broadcasts of the matches via the One-Seg system from public broadcaster NHK.

The phenomenon illustrated the fervent pull of mobile digital media in Japan amid the hurdles and quirks affecting its push.

Though many have focused on the clash for the future of high-def homevideo between Sony’s Blu-ray and Toshiba’s HD DVD, digital viewing on the go, as in One-Seg, is not to be ignored.

(One-Seg transmits video and audio data through one segment of the transmitting signal of standard terrestrial digital television broadcasts to deliver content to portable devices.)

“The One-Seg service enables users to obtain necessary information anytime, anyplace,” NHK associate director Kenji Terada says. “But unlike analog broadcasting, it offers clear, vivid images without distortion, even when in motion.”

With the steady increase in high-speed broadband access, Japanese download services could eventually offer quality films with just one click.

CinemaNow Japan was the first to offer films via download on a pay-per-view ($2) and subscription basis ($12 monthly) after entering into an agreement with Warner Bros. last November.

Though the number of titles at CinemaNow Japan, whose available content includes James Dean’s “Rebel Without a Cause” and the drug-fueled adventures of “Killer Drag Queens on Dope,” has risen to more than 1,000 in the past year, availability remains a challenge, according to marketing manager Masa Nonaka.

“Hollywood studios seem more positive than Japanese studios about digital distribution,” Nonaka says, before cautioning that “even with this, it is very hard to clear the rights to the films.”

Tsunekazu Haginiwa of Jap-anese studio Shochiku’s broadband division agrees that copyrights are a hindrance and adds that downloading might take more time to develop, given the existing market conditions.

“It will take a long time before downloading can be put to practical use,” Haginiwa says, “since demand is low.”

Through June, fiber-optic subscriptions numbered 6.3 million, up more than 15% over the quarter before, to represent 26% of all broadband services.

Because higher transfer speeds will allow for greater quality, expansion of fiber-optic communications will be key, according to Nonaka. Downloadable movies will have to improve their sharpness before matching that of a DVD, much less achieve high definition.

Should quality increase, downloaded films could prove more appealing in the near-term when compared with the roughly $2,000 price tag for Sony’s 500-gigabyte Blu-ray unit — one that might become obsolete should the less-expensive Toshiba HD DVD machine come to dominate the industry.

Meanwhile, TBS, Japan’s third-largest network, plans to use its sports and news broadcasts through One-Seg to eventually generate advertising revenue. For its part, Shochiku, too, is offering programming of up to one hour on mobile phones, whose impact Shochiku’s Haginiwa expects eventually “will equal that achieved by television last century.”

Some analysts are skeptical, because the market for all these digital services currently lacks substantial penetration, and they argue media companies should focus on simply making content.

“The key issue,” says Hiroshi Kamide, an analyst at KBC Securities Japan, “is that if a piece of content is good, it will sell and be popular in any medium. Users will adopt whatever methods necessary to consume.”

Perhaps a viable immediate use of digital media will be via short, low-resolution clips offered through video-on-demand, as popularized by Internet sites like YouTube.

Michiyuki Matsunaga, foun-der of Tokyo Digital News, a subscription-based service where female announcers read copy while clothed in bikinis, and Shinjuku Broadcasting Station (SBS), a free entertainment Internet portal that derives its revenue from advertising a la the “free paper” principle, is currently betting on digital content.

“If our content attracts viewers,” Matsunaga says of SBS, which features video of restaurants and comedy shows, “the portal will have value as an advertising media.”

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