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Lack of Standard Leaves Future of Digital TV Fuzzy

Broadcasting: New technology for improving picture quality is beset by delays, confusion and criticism.


WASHINGTON — Just one year before digital television sets hit store shelves--promising a big improvement in TV picture quality and program choices--broadcasters are scrambling to come up with a way to help viewers navigate the new channel selections.

The surprising lack of a crucial technical standard comes as the industry is supposed to be in the home stretch of what many call the biggest advance in TV technology since the introduction of color in the 1960s.

The hitch is the latest fallout from the broadcast industry's larger problem of finding a business plan for using the airwave spectrum granted by Congress in 1996 for high-definition TV.

The eagerly awaited technology has been beset by delay, confusion and increasing criticism from Capitol Hill, stemming in part from hints by broadcasters that they may use their rights to airwaves for purposes other than HDTV.

Digital television will enable broadcasters to air a single crystal-clear picture or deliver as many as five channels of standard-quality video resembling today's TV pictures.

Lawmakers, concerned that many station owners will balk at the perceived higher cost of HDTV programming, have summoned broadcasters to a hearing today before the Senate Commerce Committee to explain their plans.

"I am deeply disappointed that some broadcasters have chosen this route," Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said through a spokeswoman. "I don't understand why the TV industry would want to renege on their promise [to broadcast HDTV] when their whole rationale for" getting additional airwaves was to broadcast such shows.

McCain voted against the Telecommunications Act of 1996, legislation that granted airwaves to broadcasters for HDTV but also gave them the flexibility to air shows in a variety of formats.

The issue of digital TV "multicasting" surfaced again last month when Preston Padden, president of ABC television, indicated the network was considering airing several standard pay TV channels rather than a single channel of high-definition programming.

Sinclair Broadcasting Group, the owner of 29 television stations nationwide, has said it too may ditch HDTV and offer pay TV instead.

Broadcasters have been taken to task for such plans because they are being given digital TV airwaves--worth an estimated $20 billion to $70 billion--free in exchange for continuing the current system of free over-the-air programming.

Broadcasters had argued that it would be unreasonable for them to pay for the airwaves since they already have to spend billions of dollars to convert their stations for digital transmission.

Meanwhile, the broadcasters are struggling with how to make HDTV a profitable business, whether to recover the high costs for transmission from advertising or directly from viewers. Any plan to charge for service is likely to be a political hazard.

But Bruce Allan, vice president and general manager of Harris Corp., a leading television equipment supplier, says some broadcasters overstate the expense of delivering HDTV.

"The vast majority of the cost is for converting the station from analog to digital," Allan said. "The only [additional] thing you need for HDTV are digital cameras" and some production equipment if you are producing live programming.

HDTV defectors, however, could be undermined by a future digital channel standard that might make channel-surfing more difficult than it is now.

Couch potatoes accustomed to choosing TV channels by clicking numbers on a remote control may find that technique unusable in a market where the number of TV channels could grow or shrink by a factor of five in a single half-hour because of broadcasters' ability to multicast programming, as ABC and and Sinclair are thinking of doing.

TV set makers are experimenting with a range of navigational systems, with some favoring existing numeric keypads on remote controls and others employing computer icons--like those used by the new direct-broadcast satellite systems--to guide viewers through channel selection.

"It's certainly an issue which our entire industry is grappling with," said John I. Taylor, a spokesman for Zenith Electronics Corp. "We don't have the answers yet."

The Advanced Television Systems Committee, a Washington-based trade group, says it is working on a standard way to encode digital signals with programming information. But Bernard J. Lechner, chairman of the ATS standards committee, acknowledged that it has taken longer than expected to get the all-important cable industry, which reaches more than two-thirds of TV households, to embrace a standard.

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