This fall the biggest broadcast event since the introduction of color TV will occur. But almost no one will see it.
It's the rollout of high-definition television, or HDTV, a digitally transmitted signal hailed as the sharpest, most lifelike TV picture ever seen. If you have the right equipment, HDTV will also deliver compact-disk-quality sound. And because digital transmissions are so efficient, HDTV can carry Internet and other data traffic as well.
The problem is that no one has an HDTV set. The question facing the government, broadcasters and manufacturers is whether consumers will part with thousands of dollars for a clearer picture of ballgames, sitcoms and old movies.
Some stations in the top 10 markets have committed to digital broadcasts, along with their regular analog signals, by November. The federal government, which avidly supports HDTV, has decreed that all major network affiliates in the top 10 markets must have a digital signal on the air by May 1, 1999. Baltimore and the rest of the top 30 markets are supposed to start by November 1999.
It's not clear, though, whether all stations will meet these timetables. In Baltimore, for example, managers of the major network affiliates say the logistical challenges and equipment requirements are daunting. Simply preparing to pass along the networks' digital signals could cost each station $2 million, they say, while setting up digital programming of their own could cost at least $3 million.
And this assumes that the stations don't have to replace the landmark antenna they share on Baltimore's Television Hill. That could cost another $6 million and take two years. Engineers are studying the issue and hope to know the fate of the tower by the middle of next month.
"They've thrown a tremendous burden on stations," said Joe Bruno, director of engineering for ABC affiliate WMAR-TV.
Hank Volpe, director of engineering for WBAL, an NBC affiliate, said that he originally hoped to have a digital channel on the air by June 1, 1999, but that the launch date will likely be delayed as obstacles continue to mount.
Volpe argued that the switch to HDTV will be worth it for the stations and the viewing public. "This is going to be fun," he said. "We'll be able to clear up problems people have had with over-the-air transmission since 1948."
Like other proponents of the technology, Volpe said the higher transmission capacity of HDTV could elevate TV to a different plane, allowing viewers to choose their own camera angles, read e-mail, place voice telephone calls or peruse the Internet.
Initially, stations will broadcast an analog channel and a digital channel. Eventually, however, broadcasters and their viewers won't have a choice. If all goes according to plan, digital TV will completely replace analog signals by 2006.
New sets required
This change will cost. Current TVs won't cut it in the digital age. In fact, everyone who wants to continue to watch TV after the switch will have to buy a digital TV or a converter box to enable existing sets to receive digital signals.
The first HDTV-ready digital sets, expected to hit the market late this fall, will cost between $4,000 and $12,000. While prices are expected to drop by 80 percent within five years, HDTV still will be expensive by today's standards.
Even set-top converter boxes, which will likely be available late in 1999, could cost upwards of $600 apiece. However, a converter will merely allow your conventional set to pick up a digital signal. While the picture you get with a converter will be quite good, it will not be HDTV. For that, you'll have to spring for a digital set.
That means a lot of money will change hands. There are 97 million U.S. households that have at least one television, and of these households, 73 percent have two or more sets. Replacing or augmenting them for digital viewing will cost billions.
Not surprisingly, the TV broadcasting industry is worried about mass sticker shock. "We have to expose it to the consumers and see how much they're willing to pay," said CBS Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Michael H. Jordan.
TV makers happy
TV makers, on the other hand, see the opportunity of a lifetime. The Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association predicts that 30 percent of households will have digital TV sets by 2006.
For television's last great transformation, the introduction of color in the 1950s, consumers did not have to buy new sets. Two approaches to color broadcasting were considered. One, the so-called noncompatible approach, was technologically easier to implement but would have required viewers to replace their black-and-white sets with new equipment.
The other strategy, the compatible approach, was more difficult to develop but had the distinct advantage of allowing viewers to keep their sets. The Federal Communications Commission embraced the compatible approach.
As television's digital dawn draws near, consumers should bear in mind that not all digital TV is high definition. Some broadcasters initially said they'd rather use their share of the digital spectrum to transmit several standard-quality digital channels rather than one HDTV signal.
When this strategy caused an uproar in Congress, ABC, CBS and NBC promised to use HDTV signals for some prime-time and sports shows. Fox - the most reluctant of the major networks - said only that it might use HDTV for special events.
Cable raises another issue. Most Americans get network programs through a cable hookup, so the networks' commitment to HDTV won't mean much to consumers if cable companies don't agree to carry digital signals.
The big cable companies, including Comcast Corp. and Tele-Communications Inc., say they can give customers HDTV but complain that carrying digital channels may force them to drop some analog channels. In other words, they're ambivalent.
"In general, we think we're committed to the development of HDTV," said Joseph J. Collins, chairman and CEO of Time Warner Cable.
Pub Date: 5/25/98