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THE CUTTING EDGE

A Bold, Uncertain Vision of Creativity and Commerce

November 16, 1998|SALLIE HOFMEISTER and BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

David Hill, the chairman and chief executive of Fox Broadcasting Co., says moving the television industry from the old-style world of analog into the vaunted digital age is like "adding three more lanes to the 10 Freeway."

Robert Iger, president of ABC Inc., the broadcast and cable division of Walt Disney Co., says that "computer-enhanced television" could be the salvation of broadcasting.

TV director Pen Densham is so bullish on the creative possibilities of crystalline pictures and sounds of high-definition television that he has been producing two television series, based on "The Outer Limits" and "The Magnificent Seven," in the wide-angle format of a movie so they can be shown on HDTV.

The television industry today, as it approaches the digital frontier, is certain of only one thing: Over the next decade, technology will reinvent the appliance that resides in 98% of American homes and the things we see on it.

Advances in digital technology are giving once-hollow TV sets the brains and the brawn of personal computers and making it possible for them to duplicate the sound and picture quality of a movie theater. Images and data can now be broken into tiny digital bits that squeeze into smaller spaces and are less prone to distortion than their analog equivalents, marking the long-anticipated marriage between Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

How this digital revolution will reshape television is an issue of profound debate. Executives at the highest levels of the business are uncertain and at odds about what will happen.

Yet interviews with engineers, consultants, equipment manufacturers, analysts, software developers and TV executives and producers suggest that consumers will be bombarded with new choices and new forms of programming, especially during the experimental period of the next several years.

Television distributors will expect to offer movies, sports and live telecasts in the highest-quality digital format, HDTV, which can pack a dazzling dramatic punch.

Despite early disasters in interactive television, networks and cable operators seem convinced that with the new capacity provided by digital and the growth of the Internet, its time is arriving soon. That means movie listings, home banking, shopping, video on demand and someday video telephony will be available via TV.

"When the artists are turned loose on what the engineers have created, you will see things you never imagined," predicted Robert Graves, chairman of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, a standards-setting organization for digital television in Washington.

The impact will ripple through the entertainment business with particular resonance in Los Angeles, where content producers will have to adapt.

In the most obvious sense, the picture clarity of HDTV means that cheesy paneling, fake ferns and a news anchor's blemishes will all be vividly clear, possibly giving way to expensive new sets and an even bigger premium on young faces.

The transition will not happen quickly, with technical hurdles still to be resolved and a constellation of industries with competing agendas to be served. The high stakes, shaky economics, regulatory uncertainties and vast unknowns about consumer demand make the transition to digital the most daunting, ambitious and intriguing undertaking in TV history.

"At this point, we just don't know where this is all headed," Hill said. "But the potential and the possibilities make this the most exciting time in my 34 years in television."

High-Definition TV

Broadcasters have embraced HDTV reluctantly, primarily because there is no clear business plan for making money or selling more advertising from the transmission of the most expensive and highest-definition signal. But many of the 40 or so stations nationwide that began broadcasting a digital signal earlier this month as part of a government-mandated conversion are achieving a low form of HDTV.

Many experts say HDTV will survive despite widespread predictions of a quick death, due to the high cost of equipment. These television sets cost $7,000 and up. Until that cost drops substantially, the market for HDTV will be small.

Though the nation's 1,600 television stations are spending about $16 billion to convert to digital, HDTV is a "mirage," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the watchdog group Center for Media Education in Washington. He says the broadcasters committed to HDTV in order to persuade Congress to give them additional airwaves--delivered last year--at no charge.

While TV manufacturers such as Sony Corp. and Thomson relish the prospect of replacing the nation's 250 million analog TV sets, broadcasters believe the problem with HDTV is that advertisers are unlikely to pay much more for higher-quality pictures, and ratings are unlikely to spike as they did in the 1950s when "Bonanza" and "Disney's Wide World of Color" were the first to abandon black and white.

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