It might be called "Hai-tech" -- the electronic Japanification of the West. But it is also, says Lloyd Dobyns in an NBC report tonight, part of a war, an economic war, and one that the United States might lose. "Whoever wins," Dobyns says, "will control the economic future." That's the economic future of the whole, not-so-wide-as-it-used-to-be, world.

"NBC Reports: Japan vs. USA -- The Hi-Tech Shootout," tonight at 10 on Channel 4, marks the completion of a trilogy begun two years ago with "If Japan Can, Why Can't We?" and continued last year with "America Works When America Works." Reuven Frank grudgingly took the assignment as executive producer from then-NBC News president William Small. Now Small is gone, Frank is president again, and one of the few network projects ever to tackle that very tough TV subject, the economy, gallops to a close, under producer James Gannon.

The hour-long show documents how high the stakes are and how important victory is in this contest (but it never makes clear why only one nation can be declared the winner). Although the United States is ahead in computer technology, the gap is closing fast and, according to Dobyns, Japan enjoys an atmosphere of government-industry cooperation, whereas the U.S. is embroiled in government-industry antagonism. The picture painted of the Japanese economy is one of single-minded determination. Datsun isn't kidding when it says, "We are driven."

Not to win in this "range war," as it's called at one point, is to "become an underdeveloped country," experts say, and "the economy of the United States will be a disaster area." It is a new age, an "Information Age" of transistors and micro-chips and integrated circuits -- hardware and software -- and those interviewed on this program, both here and in Japan, say we aren't adequately tooled for it. "We need an industrial policy," it is stated, more "tax incentives" for research and development. We have to learn, the president of Apple Computer says, "how to get very good at what they do."

And another entrepreneur says headily, "Free enterprise as we have known it in the past may have to be altered."

This show doesn't kid around.

There's an awful lot of talk, but producer Gannon keeps things humming with a kind of visual scat; some machine or other is almost always doing something or other while someone is heard talking. Zam, zam, zam. But it doesn't seem to be mindless distraction or visual clutter; it seems to enhance the urgency of the whole report. Dobyns -- who coanchors "NBC News Overnight" with Linda Ellerbee -- is, as usual, impeccably straightforward and compelling. But where does he get those awful clothes?

At the close of the program, Dobyns says, "It is tempting and human to put the black hat on the Japanese and claim they're the bad guys and they don't fight fair. They fight as fair as anyone, including us. But they fight differently. It would be illogical to expect a samurai and a cowboy to have the same laws."

There is the danger this program, despite Dobyns' closing sentiment, could contribute to what appears to be an increase in anti-Japanese feeling here, as reflected in things such as an offensive Sylvania TV ad that featured, off-camera, a stereotyped Japanese man making guttural shouts of protest ("What about Sony?").

Dobyns, reached in New York during the last stages of editing the broadcast, said he didn't think the program would add to this syndrome but recognizes it exists. "And it's getting just a little bit strong," he said, "when you have Rep. John Dingell referring to the Japanese as 'the little yellow people.' " A March issue of Energy Daily quoted the Michigan Democrat as saying that in reference to Japanese auto makers. Dingell later said the remark was made at a closed meeting and that he didn't mean to give offense. Dobyns says, "If American cars had been available at the same price and of the same quality, nobody would have bought the Japanese cars to begin with."

This report deals with a matter essential to the future of this economically nauseous country. But it is being shown in the dead of August, when TV viewership is very low, and almost certainly will not earn a wow of a rating. Does this bother Dobyns, who's spent months on the show and years on this project?

"Not at all," he says. "People who care, and who can do something about the problem, will know the program is there and probably watch. If it's any good, people will write in for transcripts and distribute them and it will reach a much wider audience." That's what happened with the first two programs, "and, if I may be so immodest, I think it'll happen with this one, too."