Regular broadcasts started aboard Japan's new digital broadcast satellite (BS) on December 1, bringing high-definition and data programming to 1.2 million Japanese households. Among the 20 broadcasters taking part in the launch were five new BS stations backed by the commercial networks, as well as BS veterans NHK, Wowow and Star Channel, a 24-hour movie channel.

In their first 1,000 days of operation, BS broadcasters hope to raise the number of viewing households to 10 million, or nearly one-quarter of Japan's total number of households.

The digitalisation of broadcasting in Japan, including the scheduled launch of digital terrestrial broadcasts in 2003, is expected generate $539bn (Y60 trillion) in goods and services. Japan's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications plans to convert all broadcasts to digital by 2010, opening up huge new markets, particularly for interactive services, such as pay-per-view films delivered via high-speed cable and mobile networks.

The bonanza already seems to have started. The Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association recently issued a report saying that domestic shipments of high-definition (HD) televisions totalled 15,000 units for a 143.4% year-end gain. Sales, said the report, were boosted by broadcasts of the Sydney Olympic Games and the launch of new models able to receive digital BS broadcasts.

Problems, however, remain. Manufacturers are finding it difficult to meet demand, as production lags behind targets. Matsushita initially planned to produce 65,000 digital BS tuners and HD sets per month, but delays in sourcing LSIs forced the company to cut first-month production to 25,000 units. Matsushita expects to turn out 50,000 units for the month of December, but this is still not enough to meet demand. Other makers, such as Toshiba and Sony, are also scrambling to ramp up production.

This means that manufacturers may miss cashing in on the crucial year-end bonus season, when Japanese consumers traditionally make big-ticket purchases. The Nihon Electronics Big Store Association (NEBA) which had targeted sales of 50,000 units of sets and tuners for its nationwide digital BS sales campaign, scheduled to run from Nov 1-Dec 31, has since scaled down to 40,000 units.