LAS VEGAS — After more than a decade in development and a billion dollars in research costs, dozens of manufacturers lined up row after row of their first models of high-definition TV sets Wednesday at the annual Consumer Electronics Show.
They declared that the revolution in digital television has begun.
But with high prices and continuing uncertainty about what programming will be available to watch on the new television sets, industry experts say it may be a long time before consumers embrace the new entertainment gadgets.
The sets will be unavailable in retail stores until late autumn and the initial pricing will be in the several-thousand-dollar range for the least expensive models. A handful of big-city TV stations will begin digital broadcasts--though not necessarily with high-definition picture quality--by the end of the year, with other stations to follow by 2002.
The new technology has been long awaited by the consumer electronics industry as well as by the entertainment businesses that will produce and broadcast programming for the sets. Both industries are hoping eventually for huge economic benefits stemming from digital broadcasting.
"There's been quite a battle over establishing standards happening between the manufacturers, the computer industry, the broadcasters and the government," said Robert Scaglione, a director with the consumer electronics division at Sharp Electronics Corp. "Everyone has their own solution when it comes to what will sell the public on high-definition television."
The digital sets displayed Wednesday offer cinema-quality images and sound on wider, letter-box screens ranging in width from 35 to 100 inches. Manufacturers such as Panasonic, Sony Corp. and Thomson Consumer Electronics boasted of pictures with twice as many lines of resolution as today's sets.
And they're much more expensive, with the cheapest model expected to retail at $3,000. Most sets will range between $5,000 and $10,000, industry watchers say.
"It will take time," said Dan Lavin, a multimedia and technology analyst with the research firm Dataquest. "No one can believe that all those people ran out to buy rear-projection televisions. And it's in the interest of the entertainment industry as a whole to have regular turns in technology."
The sets initially will be aimed at those who are quick to embrace changes in technology and people who already own large home-entertainment systems. Manufacturers point at recent statistics from the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Assn. showing that more than 18 million households in the United States already own a television set costing at least $2,000.
By government regulation, at least one of the network-affiliated stations in the 10 largest cities--including Los Angeles--will start digital broadcasts by November. But broadcasters have a few options on what to do with the additional spectrum given to them by the government for these digital signals.
They can provide a single digital, high-definition signal, or compress up to five lower-definition programs--with additional data, such as interactive chat or electronic commerce--in the same space.
Networks hope to use the digital revolution to reinvent themselves and stop the steady decline in viewership. Consumer electronic companies seek to boost recent lulls in their profits.
Some broadcasters--specifically CBS, HBO and PBS--have pledged to begin digital programming by the end of 1998. Some Hollywood studios have begun planning for digital broadcasts.
" 'E.R.' is shot in high-definition. So is 'Seinfeld,' " said Richard Doherty, director of The Envisionary Group, a technology testing and research group based in Seaford, N.Y. "Most of Warner Bros. productions are either being filmed in a format that can be converted to high-definition, or are switching over to using that equipment."
Studios are looking ahead to selling the shows in syndication. "When high-definition takes off, who wants their shows to look shabby?" Doherty said.
But Southern California's electronics retailers are concerned that the absence of current programming will make it more difficult to persuade consumers to buy an expensive digital TV.
"When color TV came out it took 21 years before more people had color than had black and white," said Paul Goldenberg, owner of La Habra-based Paul's TV. "We don't think digital TV will be a big deal for years. If we had a digital TV set available today for $8,000 and next to it we have a fantastic big screen TV for $1,998, I don't think anyone will buy the first set."
Goldenberg said he plans to suggest to customers that they buy an analog TV and then purchase a set-top converter box that will allow them to receive digital signals.
Despite his pessimism, Goldenberg says his store plans to stock a range of digital TV sets when they become available.