NEW YORK — Anew television technology is on its way that promises to dazzle viewers with brighter, sharper images, wider screens and lush digital sounds.
For broadcasters and trade officials, that's a frightening prospect.
The technology is called high-definition television, and it is expected to burst into the U.S. market by 1990 in an array of TV sets, videocassettes and VCRs, video disks and disk players. In 1991, analysts predict, some cable companies will begin transmitting high-definition programs to viewers.
Only an affluent few are expected to buy the products at first, since sets will probably run about $3,500. But prices are expected to come down rapidly, bringing the new hardware within the reach of most Americans.
And that's what scares broadcasters. While there are several high-definition TV systems under development, so far no one has perfected a way to broadcast high-definition signals from transmitters to TV sets. Broadcasters, who have been already been losing viewers to cable and videocassettes, fear competition from this premium-quality product may cost them even more of their audiences.
"It's likely to make broadcast television a second-class service, for a few years at least," says Joseph Flaherty, CBS vice president of engineering and development. "Broadcasters will be tied to a technically inferior system, like AM broadcasters were when FM came along."
And since the most fully developed technology has been built by--who else?--the Japanese, trade officials fear that its advent may add billions a year to the nation's trade deficit.
U.S. broadcasters have kept a nervous eye on the developing technology for some time. But they were jolted in 1985 when a demonstration by Japan Broadcast Co. revealed that Japan's 20-year high-definition television research effort was bearing fruit.
"It was shocking," said Ben Crutchfield, an official of the National Assn. of Broadcasters.
Since then, the Japanese have accelerated their efforts to make the new technology a worldwide standard. The first high-definition products here are likely to bear such brands as Sony and Matsushita, but about three dozen other manufacturers are also at work building compatible products.
Japanese high-definition TV equipment is increasingly used in the production end of the business, in studios in the United States and abroad. Film makers are using it for rock music videos, commercials, TV shows and movies.
As its uses have expanded, American researchers have stepped up their lagging efforts to find a home-grown alternative that will suit broadcasters' needs. No fewer than half a dozen research groups are at work trying to find a way to allow so-called terrestrial broadcasting of high-definition TV signals.
While the new technology has spread panic among broadcasters, it has delighted their competitors in the cable television business. Executives of pay-TV networks see high-definition as a means of setting their service apart from--and, naturally, above--programming offered by over-the-air broadcast.
"The technology is perfectly suited for cable," said Robert Zitter, vice president for network operations at Home Box Office, the Time Inc. unit. "What we offer is premium programming, and that's what this is."
Few technical hurdles stand in the way of cable distribution of high-definition programming. And since any programming shot with 35-millimeter film can easily be adapted for high-definition TV use, cable programmers will almost instantly have huge libraries of "software."
Film's easy adaptability will also enhance the value of the Hollywood studios' film libraries. It will help justify the steep $1.5 billion paid by Ted Turner last year when he purchased MGM/UA Entertainment Co., which includes the 2,500-title MGM film collection.
Naturally, high-definition TV will also spur sales for companies that provide "package video"--videocassettes and video disks.
While companies in these business contemplate the promise of new riches, broadcasters worry that the technology will sharpen their rivalry with cable in several ways.
They fear that cable companies, once equipped to transmit high-definition signals, will gain the financial leverage to outbid them for key programming, such as locally originated sports shows.
Possible Shift to Pay-TV
"With high-definition technology, they can depend on a bigger audience, and they can justify bidding more for the shows," said Harry Pappas, chief executive of Pappas Telecasting, a broadcast chain based in Fresno. "If we lost the rights to Fresno State University football, it would hurt."
Broadcasters such as Pappas contend that the new technology may threaten the traditional dominance of free, over-the-air broadcasting, since it might shift more and more premium programming to pay services. "A lot of programming that has been available to everyone would just be available to those who could afford the service," Pappas said.