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High-Definition Television Has a Long Way to Go Before It Gains Marketplace Acceptance

December 09, 1990

I've been reading for several years articles about high-definition television similar to James Flanigan's "New Era Dawning in Home Entertainment" (Nov. 14). They are always the same story: High-definition television is fantastic; It's cheaper than film, and it's just around the corner. I've yet to see an article on the true state of this technology. It has already flopped and is truly the Edsel of the '90s.

HDTV isn't around the corner, it's here, and producers are ignoring it. It has been possible for any producer to use this medium for a few years, yet very few takers have been found. Yes, a feature film was done three years ago with it, and so was a TV movie, but those were experiments that few have the money to repeat.

The rejection of HDTV by Hollywood is really a recognition that the technology is merely a new conduit for sending big buckets of cash to Japan. Despite the loud claims, the quality is not as good as 35-millimeter film. As a production medium, it has little of the flexibility of either film or our current video technology.

The cameras are big, the recorders are huge, and highly paid engineers are required to keep everything running. Yet, it only delivers four times the quality of regular video at about 10 times the price.

As a distribution medium, the picture is hardly better. Does anyone expect consumers, even Japanese consumers, to pay $17,000 for a set that is only 36 inches across? Will they pay this when they discover that the home picture has been severely compromised by digital compression techniques?

I've seen demonstrations of these techniques, which attempt to shoehorn HDTV into a signal that can be broadcast or recorded with home equipment. The difference between it and what we view now is far from spectacular. The difference is even less when compared to available, affordable, technologies for upgrading our current standard.

The main problem with the HDTV that Sony is trying to unload on us is that it simply scales up the components of a television system. It merely increases the bandwidth and the number of scan lines to achieve greater quality. This is comparable to increasing resolution in a film camera by making the negative bigger. Yes, it works, but it is hardly a great advance.

I believe that some sort of HDTV will eventually find its way into our homes. But when it does, it will be on a truly big screen, yet at less than twice the cost of what we have now. Consumers will pay for a screen that is big, wide, bright and clear, but not if it requires a second mortgage. It will be a Japanese technology because only Japanese companies seem willing to stick with a promising new market for the long haul. Sony tried to sell home video recorders for 10 years before they finally clicked with Betamax.

My objection is to making industrial policy decisions based on the current primitive state of HDTV technology. We need to stop being dazzled by pretty pictures and focus on whether or not this is a product that can actually survive in the marketplace.


The writer is a North Hollywood video producer.

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