Five years into the digital transformation of television, most viewers still don't see a change on their screens.
The digital TV revolution is making its mark, though--in movie theaters, Web sites, office buildings and malls.
The high-definition digital cameras and production equipment that were supposed to deliver a new generation of TV have quickly found their way into filmmaking and advertising, despite their slow adoption by local TV stations. And though relatively few households have splurged on expensive digital TV monitors and receivers, millions of consumers will go to theaters this summer to see movies shot with digital camcorders--many of them built for TV news crews.
The high-definition productions on display will range from "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones" to film clips of runway models, which shoppers at shoe and clothing store Kenneth Cole in New York's Rockefeller Center view on flat-panel screens.
A growing number of TV shows are being produced in high-definition video too, even though less than 1% of all homes are equipped to view them.
Many film and video producers would have gone digital even if the federal government hadn't ordered TV broadcasters to make the leap. But equipment suppliers say the digital video trend has received an important boost from the mandate on broadcasters, just as the TV industry is benefiting from the digital experimentation being done by others in the video arena.
"There is an issue of critical mass. I'm not sure this would be happening if not for the digital-TV transition," said Stuart English, a marketing vice president at Panasonic's broadcasting equipment division as he stood among an array of digital editing and distribution equipment at the National Assn. of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas last week.
A key new market has been film and television production, in which high-definition gear is starting to take the place of 16-millimeter and 35-millimeter film.
Hoping to cut costs, TV networks "said to their producers, 'We would like you to produce more in [high-definition digital] because there's a cost savings,'" said Bob Kaufmann, owner of Video One Inc., a video-equipment rental firm in Van Nuys.
Kaufmann's crew is working on the television pilot "In My Opinion," a situation comedy being shot in high definition for Warner Bros.
To the Hollywood production community, he said, the main appeal of high-definition video is that it can look like film.
William Meurer, owner of Birns & Sawyer, a Hollywood equipment company, said about 20% of his rental cameras are digital, and they're the ones in greatest demand.
That demand extends beyond high-definition to conventional digital cameras such as Canon's XL-1, which was designed for news crews but has been adopted by such noted filmmakers as Steven Soderbergh.
"The beauty of digital is that it has lowered the barrier to entry in Hollywood," Meurer said. "At the end of the day, everybody would rather shoot film except George Lucas. But the reality of people's lives is, 'Hey, I can get an XL-1 camera, I can get a couple of my buddies, go to a friend's place and make a film.'"
Digital video equipment made its debut in the mid-1990s, when companies including Sony, Panasonic and Canon offered digital versions of the camcorders they sold to consumers.
These cameras promised better quality than analog products and enabled users to edit footage easily and cheaply on personal computers.
In 1997, the Federal Communications Commission ordered commercial TV stations to begin broadcasting in digital by May 2002. The new digital broadcasting standard included a range of formats, letting station owners decide whether to offer richer, more cinematic images (high definition) or maintain the current picture quality (standard definition).
The commission's order didn't require stations to produce shows in digital, just to transmit them that way.
Still, broadcasters couldn't deliver news, sports and other videotaped programs with better picture quality unless they used digital cameras and production gear, particularly high-definition equipment.
Manufacturers started adapting their digital video gear to support high-definition television and other new TV formats.
For example, Panasonic gradually extended its DVCPro line of cameras, which were marketed for use by roving television news teams, to include versions offering enhanced picture quality and, later, HDTV.
Broadcasters bought standard-definition digital cameras as a money-saving alternative for their news crews and invested relatively little on HDTV gear. They were spending $1 million or more per station to transmit programs in digital, but not the additional millions required to equip their studios for high definition.
And as the advertising slump deepened last year, the stations' investments in the technology slowed even further.