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THE CUTTING EDGE | Q & A

Idea Whose Time Has Come? : With the Roll-Out of the Format Come Plenty of Questions

November 16, 1998|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The roll-out of digital TV in Los Angeles this month might bring clearer picture quality and sound, but it also has brought confusion to consumers.

Even broadcasters, TV manufacturers and electronics retailers are unsure of what to expect in the months following the launch of digital TV in the nation's top 10 TV markets. And it remains to be seen whether consumers will embrace the first change in the U.S. TV standard in 50 years.

Several problems are sure to dog digital TV's introduction, such as the high cost of high-definition television sets and a lack of programming. Despite these hang-ups, the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Assn. expects three out of four consumers to own a digital TV or a box that allows them to display digital images on analog TVs by 2006.

By federal mandate, broadcasters are to return their analog channels to the government by 2006. But the transfer will occur by this deadline only if 85% of U.S. homes have access to the new technology.

Here's a look at some commonly asked questions about digital TV.

Q: What is digital TV?

A: With its crystal-clear picture and CD-quality sound, digital TV is the product of a 12-year political power struggle among lawmakers, manufacturers, broadcasters and the computer industry.

Digital signals enable broadcasters to transmit clearer pictures and better sound than possible with analog signals, which transmit pictures and sound in electromagnetic waves that become weaker as they travel farther from a broadcasting tower.

Like computer language, digital signals are transmitted in bits of electricity represented by zeros and ones. The signals rely on video compression tricks that eliminate distortions, such as ghosts and snow, that occur in analog signals, said Robert Graves, chairman of the Advanced Television Systems Committee. Digital signals are best seen on a big-screen, rectangular TV.

The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that the top 10 TV markets have access to digital TV programming by May and that households in the top 30 markets be receiving signals a year from now. All stations are required to have upgraded their equipment by 2002.

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Q: Is digital TV the same as HDTV?

A: No. There are 18 digital TV formats. The highest-quality format is high-definition TV, or HDTV. HDTV pictures have four times the resolution of analog pictures, said Gerry Kaufhold, principal analyst of digital TV and multimedia for Cahners In-Stat Group.

Most digital TV sets on the market today display pictures in HDTV because manufacturers want to show off the best digital format to customers first.

Cheaper sets display the lowest digital TV format, standard-definition TV. SDTV eliminates snow and ghosts in pictures but doesn't have the resolution of HDTV. Sets that accommodate SDTV should be on the market by late 1999.

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Q: Is the difference in picture quality that noticeable?

A: With HDTV, viewers can pick out faces in a crowd or veins on a leaf, details that analog signals can't provide. SDTV cleans up interference in analog pictures, but viewers won't notice a large difference from their current picture, Kaufhold said.

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Q: Do I have to get rid of my old TVs to receive digital TV?

A: No. Some retailers recommend that consumers wait to buy a digital TV until manufacturers sort out what features they want to offer.

Consumers have several options now. They can purchase HDTVs at eye-popping prices of $5,000 to $10,000. Most of these sets are enormous rear-projection models in various widths. And some sets on the market are "HDTV-ready," which means they require a decoder box to receive digital signals.

Eventually consumers will have to replace their analog sets or buy a digital decoder box.

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Q: When will the new TV sets be available?

A: HDTV and HDTV-ready models are available now. Most major TV manufacturers have sets on the market. Some--such as Thomson, which owns the RCA and ProScan brands--will ship display models this fall, with sets for purchase available next spring. Others, such as Mitsubishi, will sell several models this winter.

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Q: When will the price of digital TVs start to fall?

A: Manufacturers say limited sales expectations and expensive components have boosted prices. Prices will fall when the industry sells enough of the TVs to justify manufacturing larger numbers of them. But this is unlikely to happen soon.

About 95% of all TVs sold in the U.S. today are priced below $1,000. HDTV prices won't hit the $1,000 range in the next five years, according to Jim Palumbo, president of U.S. marketing and sales for Sony. Even smaller standard-definition sets are expected to be priced in the $3,000 range.

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Q: Will the new digital TVs be compatible with my current VCR and my stereo?

A: Yes. HDTV converts analog signals from videotapes into standard-definition pictures, virtually doubling their horizontal resolution. An analog VCR can't record a program shown in high definition. Consumers need to have a digital VCR to record shows that originatein HDTV.

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