Satellite samurai set for TV battle

Multi-Media: Information and TV revolutions open new possibilities in Lebanon, Japan and US
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If exclamation marks and wacky spellings were a guarantee of success, then PerfecTV, Japan's first digital satellite television service, would have no cause for worry.

Apart from conventionally named news and film stations, the 57 channels inaugurated at the service's commercial launch yesterday included PerfecTODAY!, Access!, StarKaraOK! and Fighting TV Samurai! Subscribers can supplement BBC World Service TV, and news in Korean and Chinese, with DigiCube ("Youth trendy information"), Oki Doki ("Internationalian entertainment"), and a motoring channel, bafflingly called V60 DoN/itifx10 3.

But the air of frantic light- heartedness suggested by PerfecTV's programming is misleading, for the new service, which is backed by some of Japan's biggest companies, including Toyota and Mitsui, will soon have a battle on its hands.

Within the next year, its monopoly will be broken by bigger and more ambitious competitors, such as DirecTV which is backed by Matsushita and Hughes Electronics, the US giant. Also in the ring is a man who until this year was hardly known in Japan - Rupert Murdoch.

"We have to gain as many viewers as possible before DirecTV and Mr Murdoch start to take a lead. I think that's the only choice for us," said Hiroto Kasahara, the president of PerfecTV, at the launch of the service this week.

DirecTV will provide about 100 channels from next year. Mr Murdoch's JSkyB, a joint undertaking with the Japanese software mogul, Masayoshi Son, will offer about 150 channels. Though digital satellite television is already available in several regions, including Europe and North and South America, the Japanese market could be set for the most explosive growth of all.

The competition between the new services will be a novelty in Japan, which has a population of 125 million but, like Britain, a relatively small number of terrestrial stations, alongside analogue satellite and cable. By the time all three of the new services are available next year, the number of choices will have skyrocketed.

Subscribers to PerfecTV pay about 50,000 yen (pounds 300) for the necessary satellite dish and receiver set, and a monthly subscription of 1,900 upwards. The company claims to have sold 80,000 receivers, and aims to reach 300,000 people by the end of the year.

But the technology which has brought about the boom will soon form the focus of the competition. Unlike a conventional analogue signal, digital satellite broadcasts "compress" images and data, allowing a far greater number of channels, and a lower cost.

At the moment, subscribers require a separate dish and receiver for each service. Negotiations are currently under way to adopt a single dish - and, if PerfecTV and Mr Murdoch tie up the agreement which they are rumoured to be reaching, the outlook for their competitor will be far from perfec.