WASHINGTON -- In a breakthrough that could accelerate the introduction of high-definition television, the three groups competing for the right to develop the technology are expected to sign an accord as early as today to develop a joint standard.
The pact comes after nearly three months of contention among the three HDTV development groups. At stake is video supremacy and the huge royalty payments the winning HDTV group would earn from licensing its technology to TV manufacturers and broadcasters.
For consumers, HDTV holds the promise of spectacular images and sound at home, thanks to big -- but costly -- new screens ideal for displaying the flood of entertainment and data that will be carried by fiber optic cables.
For the U.S. economy, HDTV holds the promise of a comeback in consumer electronics, because Japanese HDTV technology is already obsolete. Studies have estimated that HDTV could generate as many as 100,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs. And the nation's 1,600 TV stations will spend more than $1 million each to prepare their transmitters and studio equipment for HDTV broadcasts.
Three groups have been competing for government approval for their HDTV technologies: General Instruments Corp. and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Zenith Electronics Corp. and AT&T; and a consortium made up of Philips Electronics of the Netherlands, Thomson of France and the U.S. firms of Compression Labs Inc. and NBC.
An agreement among the HDTV groups was nearly scuttled recently in a dispute over which would produce the most U.S. jobs, but that issue is expected to fall away with all parties now participating.
Joseph Donahue, a senior vice president for technology at Thomson and a participant in the talks, said the negotiations were sometimes so heated they took on a "religious fervor." But he said participants settled their differences after deciding "it takes a great deal of cooperation to make something like this a success in the marketplace. No two companies could make that happen."
When fully in place, HDTV is expected to become the high-tech centerpiece of a coming electronic information infrastructure. It will vastly improve video sharpness and detail by transmitting sounds and images in the precise ones and zeros of computer code, a digital format, which would be much more accurate than the distortion-prone transmission system used today.
The agreement to support a single standard, expected to be announced shortly, sets the stage for the more rapid introduction of HDTV.
As the FCC moves closer to adopting a standard, HDTV has begun to stimulate more interest in the broadcast and entertainment industries, which had previously turned a cold shoulder to the technology out of concern that it would be too costly.
Meanwhile, the FCC's encouragement of a digital HDTV standard has made the technology more palatable in Hollywood, which has been stoked by the convergence of computer, telephone and video technologies as well as US West's recent agreement to invest $2.5 billion in Time Warner Inc.'s movie studio and cable TV assets.
"Digital technology is the door to video's future," said Mark Stahlman, president of New Media Associates, a New York-based venture capital firm. "The digital imperative is everywhere that you turn. It will remake the economics of broadcasting."
He added: "Once the signal is in ones and zeros, we will find a thousand ways to use it."