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Digital TVs: Way Cool, Way Pricey, Way Early

October 19, 2000|JON HEALEY |

In the 1980s, the music industry pushed consumers to swap the turntables and LPs they grew up with for a pricier digital approach called compact discs.

Now the television industry is making a similar pitch, urging the abandonment of conventional analog sets in favor of digital models with better reception, sharper pictures and cinema-quality sound.

For most people, it's an easy call. The least expensive fully functional digital set costs $3,000, which is more than 10 times what the average American spent on a new color TV this year. You could buy a 1990 Ford Taurus for less.

Even if you've got the cash, though, it might be wise to wait before diving into digital. For one thing, the risks are bigger today than they were in the mid-1980s, when the only gamble for music fans was how much money they'd save if they put off buying a CD player for a few years.

People who buy digital sets today will almost certainly pay more than those who wait a year. But they also might be stuck with a TV that can't display all the digital programming that's available in the near future. That's because the set makers, cable operators, broadcasters and Hollywood studios are trying to settle on key standards for how digital programming reaches the new screens. It's a real possibility that they'll agree on an approach that many models being sold today aren't equipped to handle.

Federal regulators have ordered commercial TV broadcasters to begin transmitting shows in digital by 2002. Public TV stations have until 2003. Analog broadcasts will continue at least until 2006, with the cutoff depending on how long it takes consumers to adapt to the new technology.

Right now, there's only one reason to buy a digital set: to have the same kind of visual and audio experience in your home that you have at the movie theater. Given the right kind of programming--the Rose Parade, for example--the difference between the best digital picture (known as high definition television, or HDTV) and the typical analog picture can be remarkable. The colors are much richer, the little details are clearer, the depth perception more lifelike.

The screens themselves aren't digital, but they're built to display the hundreds of extra tiny dots of color that a digital receiver can deliver. HDTV sets pack five times as much detail onto each square inch of the screen as analog sets do. Some of the less expensive digital models can't deliver HDTV, but they still offer at least twice as much detail per square inch as an analog set.

The problem is there's not enough on the air today to justify buying a digital set.

In Los Angeles, nine stations have begun broadcasting on their new digital channels, transmitting essentially the same programs that they do on their analog channels.

Nor have broadcasters done much yet with the multimedia capabilities of the digital signal, which could be used to add extra graphics, sound or even video clips to a program. The industry is still trying to settle on a standard for broadcasting data, so today's digital sets aren't built to tune in those enhancements.

Given those limits, it doesn't make sense to buy a full-blown digital TV set today unless you have a couple of thousand dollars in loose bills crumpled on your dresser. It would be better to buy a "digital ready" set that has an analog receiver built in but can show HDTV when connected to a separate digital receiver. That way, you can hold off buying a digital receiver until there's more HDTV on the air, the data-broadcasting issues are settled and prices have dropped.

But buying a digital ready set isn't a completely safe bet either. There are still some tough, unresolved questions about how digital receivers, cable converters, recorders and satellite TV boxes will connect to digital-ready monitors.

Most of the new monitors use a three-plug connector called component video that breaks the digital picture into three separate streams of information about color and shape. Other approaches include a five-plug version and a single 15-pin connector like the one that hooks a computer monitor to a PC.

Hollywood studios are lobbying hard for a digital connector with electronic scrambling to prevent pay-per-view movies and other premium events from being recorded. For the studios, that's protection against piracy. For consumers, however, that means no digital VCR.

"We have a big problem with that," said Dave Arland, a spokesman for Thomson Consumer Electronics Inc., the maker of RCA, ProScan and GE television sets. "Most consumers are not video pirates in China. They're Mom and Dad and the kids," Arland said, adding that consumers want to watch TV on their own schedule, not when Hollywood tells them to.

But Hollywood's negotiations with cable operators and TV makers are expected to set the industry standard for how digital signals will move from a cable converter box to a digital or digital-ready set. That's a key standard, given that two-thirds of U.S. homes get their TV via cable.

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