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Telly Heaven

Forget the couch. Now television is best viewed lying on your futon, with a laptop on your stomach.

(this article first appeared in the June 6/June 13, 2005 issue of newsweek international)

Akiko Takasu loves TV dramas. Every morning the violin teacher and mother of three teenagers in Saitama, north of Tokyo, quickly finishes her morning chores--cleaning up the house, doing laundry and dishes. Then she tunes in to ``Winter Sonata,'' a popular Korean soap, uninterrupted by her husband and kids. But she doesn't sit down in front of the family's big TV set; Takasu gazes into the 17-inch screen of a desktop computer. The drama is being broadcast on the Internet, so she watches whenever she's ready. ``I watch it alone,'' says Takasu. ``This way I can really get into the world of this wonderful story.''

Takasu is part of a growing trend in Japan: getting TV programs via the Internet. The service has been available since 2002, when communications carriers and providers were allowed to enter the broadcasting business. Now dozens of companies offer old dramas, anime series, movies, news and variety shows on IPTV (Internet protocol TV), and hundreds of thousands of Japanese are getting TV online. Yoshihiro Adachi, an assistant director of Tokyo's Fuji Chimera Research Institute, estimates the broadband-TV market will be worth $ 230 million in five years, up from $42 million in 2003.

Why has the market taken off so suddenly? Because in Japan, IPTV has a killer app: Korean dramas. ``Winter Sonata,'' which was produced by Korea's KBS and starred the smiling heartthrob Bae Yong Joon, jump-started the Korea boom in Japan, when the series aired on Japan Broadcasting Corp.'s satellite channel. Due to overwhelming popular demand, the TV station aired repeats through 2004, but ``Yong-sama'' fanatics clamored for older programs starring* Bae and other dramas with the actors and actresses from ``Winter Sonata.'' Service providers soon jumped on the bandwagon by dredging up old programs Fans were more than willing to pay $2 to register for the service and about $2 per episode.

TV watching has come a long way from the days when the whole family would crowd around the set to watch a popular drama or a baseball match--or an event like the parade of the just-married crown prince and crown princess (now the emperor and empress) in 1959. The IPTV experience is much more personal. Katsuyoshi Teramae, a 43-year-old engineer in Ishikawa, northeastern Japan, says even his 9-year-old son sometimes bypasses the family's 33-inch TV set. ``He comes home from school, goes straight to my old laptop to watch an anime on the Internet,'' he says. Akiko Takasu had hardly ever touched a computer until several months ago. But once she decided she had to get IPTV for Korean dramas, she taught herself to go online.

With the market expanding quickly, Usen, a cable-broadcasting leader, took a major step forward in April by offering a free service called GyaO. Viewers register by giving their age and ZIP code, and with a few clicks are watching movies like ``Hannibal'' and ``Chicago,'' anime series, news programs and, of course, ``Winter Sonata.'' With the Web luring young people away from TV, advertisers have increased spending on on-line ads to $1.7 billion last year, up 53 percent over the previous year. Yasuhide Uno, Usen's CEO, claims that the service is attracting viewers from the coveted 20-49 age group (though a random survey of the channels seemed to turn up more ads for Usen-related products like movies and CDs released by the group's companies than anything else). Usen plans to expand the service to allow viewers to make online purchases of products being advertised. Usen hopes to attract 10 million Japanese viewers by the end of the year .

It is too early to tell if and how free broadband TV will change conventional programming. But it's already had a huge impact on the life of Yoko Yamami, a 37-year-old blues singer in Tokyo. She loves movies but doesn't have time to attend theaters or rent DVDs. And she hates the idea of paying to see an old movie. ``I guess I'm quite selfish,'' says Yamami, laughing. Lying on her futon, with her laptop on her stomach, she has watched every episode of ``Winter Sonata'' and the 1970s cartoon series ``Joe of Tomorrow,'' about a boxer. ``It's close to my idea of heaven,'' she says.

(c) newsweek
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