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Broadcasters Gather to Launch Digital TV

Technology: Some say widespread use is still far off because of cost and logistical barriers.

April 06, 1998|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — After receiving billions of dollars' worth of free airwaves from the government last year to offer digital TV, broadcasters are gathering here this week in record numbers to launch the technology, whose movie theater-like video and crystal-clear sound represent the biggest TV advance since color.

At the National Assn. of Broadcasters convention, industry stalwarts like NBC Television President Neil Braun and ABC Inc. President Bob Iger will mingle with the high-tech captains of the Digital Age: Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs and Ron Whittier, a senior vice president at giant computer chip maker Intel Corp.

But with TV station owners still undecided over basic elements of the technology and manufacturers not scheduled to deliver digital TV sets until the fall, some say a celebration in Las Vegas may be premature. And meanwhile, critics complain that broadcasters and stations aren't moving fast enough to provide the highest-quality pictures and make good on related promises they made in return for the free bandwidth they received from Congress.

"It's going to take a while for digital TV to gain widespread acceptance, no question about it, but I think most broadcasters are genuinely excited. It's close enough now where it's in their . . . business plans," said Richard Wiley, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, a longtime proponent of the technology.

A survey conducted earlier this year by the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Assn., a Washington, D.C., trade group, found that consumers also are excited about digital TV. The association said that viewers who had seen the technology were dazzled by its crystal-clear, high-resolution image quality and preferred it even to lower-resolution TV sets enhanced with other fancy services made possible by digital TV like freeze-frame and links to the Internet.

Ironically, the consumer excitement over digital TV is considered a factor in the decline of sales for traditional TV sets. Yet digital TV may not initially prove to be a salvation for retailers. There is likely to be widespread sticker shock as consumers find the first digital TV sets on shelves at prices ranging from $5,000 to as much as $10,000.

Digital TV also needs to work out bugs, such as whatever caused a Dallas TV station's signal last month to interfere with 12 heart monitors in a nearby hospital.

Despite the reservations over digital TV, some form of the technology is still scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles and the nation's nine other largest cities by Christmas.

Station owners, however, have been granted considerable flexibility about how they utilize the airwaves given to them by the federal government. They can use their entire digital spectrum to air one super-sharp, high-definition TV picture all the time. Or they can slice the high-definition digital signal into multiple channels of lower-resolution programming or they can even use part of their digital airwaves to offer high-speed transmission of the Internet and other computer data.

Indeed, whether viewers will even notice any change in television picture quality will depend in large part on what channel they are watching.

The CBS and NBC networks signaled last week they will air most of their prime-time TV schedule in the so-called 1080-line interlaced format, a digital, high-definition display that offers the most video detail but lacks complete compatibility with computer monitors. (Interlaced scanning delivers a picture by scanning every other line on the first pass and remaining lines on a second pass. Progressive scanning, used largely in computers, scans all lines of a picture at once.)

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ABC, meanwhile, has hinted that it will use a slightly lower-quality high-definition digital format that displays well on computer monitors. But the Fox television network is reportedly going to air some prime-time programming in a comparatively low-resolution format called 480-line progressive scanning that the Advanced Television Systems Committee digital TV standards group in Washington says doesn't even qualify as high-definition TV.

Andrew Setos, executive vice president of technology for News Corp., the parent company of the Fox network, says the Fox broadcasts will be compatible with computer displays and offer TV producers more flexibility than other formats.

"The key is the benefit to viewers," Setos told Communications Daily, a trade publication. Setos indicated that the lower resolution will enable Fox to offer multiple digital channels instead of a single high-definition digital TV signal. "This is part of the creative process--finding out what the viewers want."

The viewer referendum on digital TV may not just show up in TV's vaunted ratings sweepstakes, it may well have implications for key industries beyond broadcasting, particularly the computer industry.

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