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Don't Fall for Hoopla on HDTV Standards


"There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical . . . . Sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. You are about to participate in a great adventure ; you are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to the Outer Limits."

Well, what did you expect when the Federal Communications Commission was pushing to create brave new digital standards for television broadcasting? The multimedia "Mister Ed"? (Of course, of course.) While the FCC has so far done a fine job shepherding America's television sets toward the digital future, they still have to journey through a technical "Twilight Zone" before testing "The Outer Limits" of potential.

To be sure, the announcement that high-tech companies such as AT&T, Philips and General Instrument, which had been viciously competing to set the new digital standard, would now cheerfully collaborate has dramatically changed expectations about the coming convergence of TV sets and personal computers. Some technical gurus insist that the manufacture of digital television systems may now be less than three years away. "We're at the end of the beginning," acknowledges Richard Wiley, the former FCC chairman who chairs the commission's special Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service.

As potentially exciting as these developments are, tremendous misconceptions have sprung up around this digital standard--not least of which is the importance of the television standard itself. In fact, all the hoopla around the FCC's digital broadcasting standard is obscuring a far more important standard that's emerging.

But first, let's examine what this consensus to create a new standard does not do. A new standard for American digital television does not inherently boost the competitiveness of U.S. companies.

"The standard itself has nothing to do with national competitiveness," asserts Lee Knight, who has tracked digital television as a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Center for Technology, Policy and Industrial Development. "Although companies like Apple and IBM and more entrepreneurial firms may now have the opportunity to participate in this emerging market, it's unreasonable to assume that setting a new standard automatically translates into some sort of advantage."

There is nothing about a digital TV standard that would prevent a Sony, Matsushita, Samsung or Hitachi from building and selling boxes that are better and cheaper than digital TVs made in the USA. Just as overseas manufacturers dominate manufacturing of today's analog TVs, they could do so with digital TV sets. The issue is not the standard; it is how will American hardware, software, display and components companies reorganize themselves around a new standard?

Secondly, some "experts" are quoted as saying that these new digital TV sets will cost $1,000 or $2,000 more than today's TVs. Nonsense! If TV and computer technologies are indeed merging, then digital TV sets will fall into the same price war economics that today's personal computers do. In case these "experts" haven't noticed, computer prices--processors, displays, disk drives, the works--are all getting cheaper.

It is altogether possible that--a decade hence--a high resolution, programmable, interactive digital TV set will cost the equivalent of $399.99. Let's put it another way: If American companies are stupid enough try to charge $1,200 for their digital TV sets, expect the Japanese, Koreans, Chinese and Indians to dominate this market.

But the key thing to recognize is that, in this new age of cable television and fiber optics, a digital "broadcasting" standard just isn't all that important. The three broadcast networks are more the bottlenecks than the champions of digital innovation. Even Wiley acknowledges that the ultimate goal is not a broadcast standard but "a family of compatible standards. . . . It's not just an issue of broadcast standards; for example, we have to get the cable companies involved here too."

The real standards revolution is not in "digital TV" broadcasting but in what tech nerds are calling "header descriptors." Think of these as the Universal Product Codes of multimedia. They are digital tags that tell a computer or a "smart" TV set or a cable converter box just what kind of media bundle is being transmitted.

Receiving a Sega video game? An old-fashioned color TV program? A Microsoft Windows program? Because the header is standardized, the box now "knows" what it has to decode. It would be like having a smart VCR that was programmed to recognize and adjust for VHS, Betamax and camcorder cassettes.

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