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Turning off the television

Japanese face a bewildering array of viewing platforms

TOKYO — It’s a jungle out there — a platform jungle — thanks to television on mobile phones, movies via broadband on your TV, digital terrestrial and digital satellite, movies in karaoke bars, and the good old analog signals still kicking.

Cross-platform is the buzzword in Japan, where no month goes by without a service announcement thanks to a mix of new technologies and loosening regulations.

The latest entry is Mobaho!, short for digital satellite multimedia broadcasting for mobile receivers. Mobaho! was launched in late October by a consortium of 88 Japanese and South Korean companies including Toshiba, Sharp, Toyota and SK Telecom under the umbrella of the Mobile Broadcasting Corp. The service offers 40 audio and video channels and close to 60 information data services from news to the latest lottery results via a high-definition signal, for $24 a month.

Japanese are aficionados of electronic gadgets — most new cars here feature navigation systems and many also add on a TV.

With Mobaho!, motorists and their passengers can watch movies, programs and news with hitherto unheard of crisp image quality. Or they can take a Mobaho! terminal wherever they go.

Sounds great, especially with the wide customer base the Mobaho! partners can muster. While past digital satellite ventures were mostly based on pubcaster NHK’s technology, the new service is a private venture that aims to muster 2 million users in the first three years.

That might be ambitious. Although the monthly fee is reasonable, dedicated Mobaho! terminals necessary to receive the signals retail for $570 and only feature a miniscule 3.5- inch display.

And the past doesn’t indicate success: a similar service based on a communication satellite platform launched by major electronic firms some years ago failed because of a lack of interest.

Another major competition is TV via mobile phones. Although terrestrial digital services for portable devices won’t be introduced commercially until late 2005, network Tokyo Broadcasting System and advertising agency Hakuhodo, through its affiliate Hakuhodo DY media partners, are testing the service ready to be at the forefront once it is commercially viable.

This service will offer a similar interactivity and information potential as Mobaho!. And they are not the only ones betting on this avenue for their content: all major networks have their mobile phone-related services in place and are fine-tuning for the actual launch sometime next year.

“They (Mobaho!) have to market heavily and get better terminals into the market soon, for a decent price,” argues one industry insider who doesn’t want to be named. “It’s a major gamble, given the overflow of television services and platforms available.”

That the rush into new delivery methods is key for survival is proven by MTV Japan’s decision to diversify from cable delivery into mobile phones and computers.

With a flood of programming expanding from traditional platforms, such as terrestrial and cable TV, into mobile phones, computers and portable devices, any new service will have to spend millions in advertising and PR to lift off.

Only time will tell who’ll survive the cross-platform boom.

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