Despite the sharp decline in domestic TV unit shipments since 2011, Japanese CE companies just can't seem to let go of the remote.
Every time I return to Japan, I’m reminded of “traditions” in this hidebound country that never seem to change.
A good example is Japanese CE vendors’ addictions to the TV business.
I mean, when Dinah Washington recorded “TV Is the Thing This Year,” the year was 1953.
Nonetheless, despite billions of dollars lost in television revenue and a sharp decline in domestic TV unit shipments since 2011, Japanese CE companies just can’t seem to let go of the remote.
Figure 1: (Source: Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association)
Japan’s concerted effort to push 4K and 8K Ultra High Definition TV (spearheaded by NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster) indulges the domestic TV suppliers’ compulsion to bet on the halo effect of premium sets.
And then, there are gullible Japanese consumers egging them on.
Sony, Panasonic, Toshiba and Sharp are all finding out that they can still count on the buying power of Japanese consumers. Since I was a kid in Tokyo, I’ve witnessed the Japanese falling prey to more expensive TVs with ever increasing resolution, optional features, size, color, bezel-width, horizontal lines, vertical pixels, you name it. And we’ll buy it.
As the Rio Olympics opens this week, Japan’s electronics industry is TV-crazy all over again, promoting the newer 4K and 8K UHDTV standards.
NHK officially began 4K and 8K test broadcasting on August 1st.
The Olympics Broadcasting Services will be shooting 130 hours of 8K content for Japanese television sets during August's games. This will include coverage of swimming, football, basketball, judo and both Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
Although no 8K UHDTV sets are available yet on the consumer market, there will be a plenty of opportunities for manufacturers to strut their stuff in showrooms and public viewing sites set up all over Japan.
This is a marketing strategy that feels decidedly old fashioned, but it’s the Japanese electronics industry’s tried and tested playbook.
Back in black
In the latest financial quarter, it turns out that every Japanese CE company saw its TV business back in the black.
On Monday (Aug. 1st), Ichiro Takagi, Sony’s executive vice president responsible for home entertainment and sound business, said that 38% of TVs sold by Sony this year are 4K. The company has plans to increase this ratio to 60% next year, according to Nikkei, Japan’s economic newspaper.
In the latest April–June, 2016 quarter, Panasonic saw TV shipments grow by 18%, compared to the same period a year ago, thanks to an increase in 4K TV sales.
Toshiba tripled its 4K TV sales—among certain new models—compared to a year ago. The ratio of Sharp’s 4K TV sales has already exceeded its own expectations, by surpassing the company’s stated goal of 40%.
Japanese retailers are betting on Japanese consumers’ dying to catch a glimpse of the Olympics on a bigger, finer resolution 4K TV.
To a consumer like me—basically a cheapskate, non-early adopter no longer living in Japan—this is remarkable, because, well, remember. There are no regular broadcasts using 4K technology to speak of, except for NHK’s test broadcasts.
In fact, Japan’s broadcasters have no plans to air 4K content until 2018—at the earliest.
But wait, as they say on TV, there’s more. Even if I had gone out impulsively and bought a 4K TV on a whim, I couldn’t watch anything in 4K via TV broadcast, because I also need a 4K TV tuner.
In late June, Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications issued a “notification” to consumers saying that 4K television sets, which have been on the market for a few years now, require “special 4K receivers” in order to display 4K ultra high-definition broadcasts. (Alternatively, though, you could just forget about 4K TV broadcast all together and just subscribe to Netflix to watch 4K programs on your current 4K TV set.)
The good news is that 4K TV sets are getting more affordable. According to GfK Japan, the average retail price of 4K TV is coming down to 177,000 yen ($1,735) in recent weeks.
What about 8K?
Figure 2: From Hi-Vision to Super Hi-Vision (Source: NHK)
Compared to the current 2K digital broadcasting (1,920 x 1,080 interlaced video), NHK’s 8K Super Hi-Vision video offers video component consisting of 7,680pi by 4,320pi, on progressive scanning mode. 8K features with a Rec. 2020 colour gamut and 10 or 12 bit depth, and a frame rate of 60P or 120P.
4K UHDTVs have screens with 3,840pi by 2,160pi, which is about four times as many pixels as today’s 2K HDTV.
Obviously, NHK is asking why they should stop at 4K, if they can already pull off 4K.
In contrast, for TV makers and providers setting their sights on ATSC 3.0 in the United States, 4K is the feasible future of high resolution.
But never mind that. On Monday, Sony’s Takagi disclosed a plan to damn the torpedoes and launch a commercial version of 8K TV in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
(There’s something about the Olympics that makes Japanese TV engineers a little goofy every four years.)
I’m not against the prospect of 4K and 8K video broadcast. But I can’t help but worry about Japanese TV manufacturers who continue to follow in lockstep the publicly-funded ambitions of NHK.
After all, it wasn’t NHK’s analogue Hi-Vision technology that won the global HDTV battle. Instead, General Instrument thought of sending audio and video in digitally processed and multiplexed signals.
That idea—digitally processed signals—has profoundly affected broadcast, telecommunication and consumer electronics in the global market.
Considering that 8K is an extension of the original digital TV invention, it’s hard to imagine that 8K can bring to us even bigger, fundamental changes.