Television can start revolution without me


WHEN LOOKING for proof that our household is presided over by a dad who is a dinosaur in a digital age, my kids point to our television antenna.

Nobody has a TV antenna anymore, they tell me. Everybody gets their television signal on cable.

Imagine the feeling of smugness that came over me yesterday as I read newspaper stories saying that people with antennas could be the first in the nation to experience the joy of watching digital, high-definition television.

I was not entirely sure what kind of joy digital, high-definition television offered. I thought it had something to do with enjoying a clearer picture and cleaner sound than the usual murky stuff I experience when I watch the set in the family room. But I did know that digital, high-definition television is "the next big thing," the electronic accouterment that marks you as "with-it," as "technologically cool."

I did a little research into digital, high-definition television. My research consisted of reading a couple of newspaper stories and calling up three guys who know a lot about television antennas. The guys were Sidney Lippman, who runs Liberty Radio and Television and has been installing antennas in the Baltimore area since 1948, John Mark Ivey, spokesman for the Channel Master antenna operation in Smithfield, N.C., and Robert K. Graves, chairman of the Advanced Television Systems Committee in Washington, an industry group studying the myriad matters involved in the nation's switch to high-definition television. These antenna guys became my panel of experts.

Cable companies, I was told, might take their time switching over from the conventional TV signal to the new high-definition signal. Apparently there are two reasons that might keep cable companies from making a quick switch.

One is that many of their customers won't have the kind of fancy TV sets that display all the features of digital, high-definition television. These new sets aren't expected to be in stores until December 1998 and are slated to cost in the neighborhood of $2,500 each. Another option is to buy a converter box, costing between $300 and $1,000, which can send a digital, high-definition signal to a conventional TV. But experts I spoke with said this converter box setup won't get up and dance in a technologically cool kind of way. At least not the way a new digital, high-definition setup will boogie.

I also learned that cable companies will be able to provide both the new, high-definition signal as well as the old, analog signal. But the experts told me that in order to offer both, cable companies will need to buy expensive equipment that will "digitally compress" things, and avoid taking up "too much band width." About the only part of this explanation I grasped was the part about buying expensive equipment. I surmised that it is going to take the cable companies time and money to offer all their customers digital TV.

In the meantime, folks who can't wait for the cable company can get digital TV by putting up an antenna, the same kind of antenna I have on my roof. They will still have to buy a new TV, a digital number.

This digital TV revolution is not going to happen tomorrow. The dates being mentioned as the likely start of noticeable change are Christmas 1998 and May 1999. That is when network stations in the nation's 10 largest TV markets, including Washington, are expected to launch digital service. The Federal Communications Commission timetable calls for Baltimore and other smaller markets to get digital TV by 2002.

As a cheapskate, I am unlikely to join the digital TV revolution. I would rather spend $2,500 on a new roof or a new bathroom than on a new TV.

Nonetheless, I was thrilled yesterday to learn that since my old antenna now pulls in Washington stations, it probably can pull in digital signals from the Nation's Capital once the revolution hits.

So the next time my kids call me a "fogey," I plan to yank them out of the house and point to the roof of our Baltimore rowhouse.

"Look at that rusty antenna," I will tell the smirking youths. "It shows we're on the cutting edge of the digital television revolution."

Pub Date: 4/05/97

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