SAN FRANCISCO — In an era when computers double in power every few years, and high-technology gadgets such as fax machines and cellular phones become virtual necessities overnight, it seems almost quaint that America's television system is still based on technology from the 1950s.
But change is coming, and recent events indicate that the long-awaited switch to high-definition television will be a more radical departure than many had expected. Specifically, several American companies have revealed proposals for an HDTV system that would use the digital code of computers, an advanced technique that most believed was not yet feasible.
This transition has further raised the stakes for the broad array of industries and interest groups scrambling for position in HDTV. For television viewers, high-definition television simply means crisper pictures and better sound--in essence, movie theater-quality images on the living room TV. But for movie moguls, computer companies, TV network executives and government trade officials, HDTV will bring major changes in how business is done.
And the stakes are especially high for the U.S. electronics industry. That's because Japanese companies have long been ahead of their U.S. counterparts in HDTV technology, and the market for HDTV equipment is expected to be so large that it will control the development of a huge swath of the electronics business.
It's no wonder, then, that the emergence of U.S.-developed digital technology as a key factor in the advancement of HDTV has created quite a stir. But though few dispute the potential benefits of digital HDTV, the sudden rush to this unproven technology is risky.
If the proposed systems do not work as promised when they are tested by the Federal Communications Commission beginning next year, the United States could find itself back at square one in the HDTV race.
And even if the technology proves viable, it's unlikely to do much for U.S industry's ability to compete in the television equipment business. It might be a source of pride to have a U.S.-designed HDTV system that's more advanced than those in other countries, but most of the profits will still flow to the Japanese and European companies that dominate the international consumer electronics business.
"If we develop (a superior) American standard for HDTV, will the United States begin again to manufacture TV sets? Absolutely not," says James C. McKinney, president of the Advanced Television Standards Committee, an inter-industry advisory group. "HDTV is not the industry that will save the U.S. as a technological competitor or balance our trade books, and nothing we do is going to affect that."
That view is contrary to what many had hoped for several years ago, when U.S. industry suddenly awoke from a long nap and realized that Japan was poised to dominate yet another emerging high-tech industry. The Japanese government broadcasting company and big Japanese electronics firms had been quietly working on HDTV for more than 20 years while American companies retreated from consumer electronics. By the mid-1980s, the Japanese were bringing their system to market and the United States seemed prepared to accept it.
But European governments, anxious to protect their beleaguered consumer electronics companies, refused to accept the Japanese system and in 1986 launched a government-subsidized project to develop a European HDTV system. That destroyed the possibility of an international standard for HDTV, and helped shift the debate in the United States, where there was growing concern about Japanese domination of the computer chip business and other high-tech industries.
And HDTV promises to be an important industry indeed. A 1988 study commissioned by the federal National Telecommunications and Information Administration said sales of HDTV receivers and VCRs could be worth as much as $144 billion a year by the end of the next decade, and as many as 100,000 U.S. jobs could be at stake.
Furthermore, high-definition television sets will be sophisticated devices that use advanced computer logic chips, large amounts of computer memory and new types of display screens. U.S. computer and component companies fear that if the Japanese dominate HDTV, they will also dominate those component markets as well and gain a further boost for their efforts in the computer business.
That line of reasoning caused several congressmen and industry groups, led by the American Electronics Assn., to push for a government-funded HDTV development effort. The Bush Administration, though, refused to back the project and even squeezed out a key defense department official who had advocated such a policy.
But the FCC, which regulates over-the-air broadcasting, decreed that any U.S. HDTV broadcast system would have to operate within the existing broadcast spectrum and be compatible in some way with existing television sets. The Japanese system, designed for satellite broadcasting, didn't fit those criteria.