HDTV in faceoff with current TV Persuasive: Comparing the pictures side-by-side shows the high-definition version looks good. Really good.


Is HDTV really that great?

The broadcast and electronics industries insist that it is, and that Americans will gladly abandon their old televisions for the new technology.

We'll see. In our media-saturated society, we've been trained since childhood to assume that a normal, low-definition TV picture is a perfectly adequate reproduction of real life.

For decades, the broadcast industry has encouraged this substitution, asking us to treat a televised event as a surrogate for a front-row seat. Now the industry is saying this isn't good enough, and it's asking us to buy into something new - HDTV.

I got my first glimpse of high-definition television a couple of weeks ago at a congressional hearing on the future of television. Chieftains from the networks and cable and computer industries were there, but they were overshadowed by the oversized HDTVs perched in the corners of the hearing room.

Those sets played a variety of videotaped images: whales frolicking, Olympic skiers barreling down a Japanese hillside and close-ups of jewelry and clock parts.

But much of the show involved scenes from "Titanic," a curious programming choice. Here were the champions of an expensive, much-hyped, can't-miss, technological marvel invoking the tragic destruction of an expensive, much-hyped, can't-miss technological marvel.

And the picture? Well, it looked good. Really good. The colors were rich and true, and all the little details - the drops cascading off a whale's tail, the whorls and filigrees on a silver set - stood out with impressive clarity.

The most persuasive evidence of HDTV's quality came during a segment on Olympic ice hockey. This sport is devilishly difficult to capture on camera because the ice swallows up the tiny black puck, making the action hard to follow. On HDTV, the puck (and every skate-carved scratch in the ice) showed up in superb detail.

In all, it was a fine display but a limited one, because it didn't include a comparison with the best of today's technology, a high-quality analog TV.

So I arranged a visit to WHD-TV, an experimental station beaming HDTV signals from NBC's Washington office. The digital test signals are carried on Washington channels 27 and 30, but they're invisible to anyone without an HDTV set - which is to say, everybody.

WHD President Bruce Miller and his staff set up two sets side by side, one showing an HDTV signal, the other showing an analog picture. Although the HDTV set was a bit wider, they were comparable in overall image size.

The two sets simultaneously played a tape shot with a high-definition camera. Like the one played at the congressional hearing, it was a collage of images.

It wasn't easy to choose between the two. Perhaps because WHD - to its credit - used an excellent analog set fed by a perfect closed-circuit signal, the HDTV and analog pictures looked very much alike.

Some details, such as shadows or small chunks of gravel on a mountainside, were more vivid on HDTV, partly because HDTV's "contrast ratio" - the difference between the whitest white and the blackest black - is much greater.

In addition, HDTV is free of the little imperfections that appear in analog images. The horizontal lines that show up on an analog screen were absent on HDTV, along with minor "ghost" images and color smears.

If these things sound trivial, an early HDTV set won't be worth the money. But if you're really picky about your picture - or you're an ice hockey fan with a few grand lying around - you can soon be the first on your block to embrace the big experiment.

Pub Date: 5/25/98

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