WASHINGTON -- Signaling that the race to develop a standard for American high-definition television is in its homestretch, two of the four rival groups agreed in principle yesterday to hedge their bets by splitting royalties if either of them wins the government-supervised competition.
The alliance will unite a group consisting of General Instrument Corp. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with one consisting of Zenith Electronics Corp. and American Telephone & Telegraph Co.
The pact reduces the financial risks of losing the competition. It also provides for sharing patent rights after a standard is picked so that the loser will be able to manufacture the chosen system more easily.
If the agreement is made final, it will mark an important consolidation in the government-supervised competition to develop the next generation of television.
High-definition television's image is twice as detailed as today's screens and comes close to matching the crispness and wide-screen dimensions of movies. It is expected to deliver sound that matches the quality of compact discs.
Yesterday's decision means that the race is too close to call for most of the contestants, said Dale Cripps, publisher of the HDTV Newsletter in Alsea, Ore.
"The picture quality is so close that this is coming down to how well the systems operate for broadcasters," he said. "Nobody's handicapping this thing."
In the last several years, as the competition has intensified and as the time of testing has drawn closer, the number of rivals has dwindled from more than 20 companies or groups to four.
The other remaining competitors are NHK, the Japanese broadcasting company, and a consortium of NBC, North
American Philips, Thomson S.A. of France and the David Sarnoff Research Center.