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High-Definition's Middle Ground

When broadcasters haven't yet caught up to the capabilities of the TV set, what's a consumer to do?

June 30, 2002|BRIAN LOWRY

My television set has been a reliable friend and ally over the years--there for me, without fail, through more college football games and bad TV pilots than I care to remember.

As a result, I didn't really blame my 27-inch Zenith several weeks ago when it sort of emitted a belch of light, then took on a strange greenish tint that I couldn't correct. To the end, it has been a trouper, continuing to function even though the only things that look normal on it now are golf tournaments, the Boston Celtics and certain episodes of "Star Trek."

What did annoy me, frankly, was the prospect of having to buy a new TV, and no, cheap as I am, cost was not the paramount concern. The issue, rather, has to do with the uncertainty surrounding the TV industry's eventual switch to high-definition television. In a nutshell, I fear purchasing a TV today that could become obsolete by the time George W. Bush (who doesn't look all that bad greenish, by the way) completes a potential second term.

For those blissfully ignorant regarding such matters, television stations currently send out programs on what is known as an analog signal, the crummy old TV we've been watching for years. The government, however, controversially agreed to give broadcasters free digital spectrum worth billions of dollars to gradually make the transition to a new system, with crystal-clear pictures and far more lines of visual resolution.

The expanded capacity offered by the digital spectrum can also be used to split a TV signal into multiple channels, eventually allowing a local TV station to create secondary feeds for 24-hour news, text or interactive services, such as conveniently ordering products featured during a program.

The big come-on to consumers, however, has always been the promise of high-definition TV, letting you see every bead of sweat during the Super Bowl as if the game were being played in your living room. Stores such as Best Buy, the Good Guys, Fry's Electronics and Circuit City advertise and demonstrate this gee-whiz technology, which I've been seeing at industry trade shows since the early 1990s.

Many TV stations have already introduced some high-definition telecasts on a second channel, although few people have ponied up for the sets, meaning those signals are going largely unseen. Moreover, it's not entirely clear when the government will compel broadcasters to phase out analog signals, with the expectation--especially in light of the giveaway--that deadlines will be postponed and the switch-over could ultimately take decades to achieve.

Despite those disclaimers, because of my responsibility to the public as a TV columnist (insert giggles here), I felt somewhat obligated to consider embracing the future, although I wasn't enthusiastic about parting with more than $3,000--at least six times what a perfectly acceptable, conventional TV would set me back--to be one of the newer kids on the block watching high-definition TV.

The quest for the clearest possible picture, however, remains at best murky. So I decided to visit multiple TV-selling outlets anonymously, read Consumer Reports and try to make an informed decision on what I should buy.

Regarding my field work, either the economy is really bad or salespeople recognize a couch potato when they see one, because in most stores they descended on me almost as soon as I passed the camera section. Interestingly, many of them not only patiently explained technological differences when asked (though I'm not sure they all got it precisely right), but some were also well-versed in the twisted political road that led to this superhighway with no clear onramp.

As I began looking around, I discovered that true high-definition sets with all the bells and whistles built into them are very expensive, particularly when you realize that the content spilling out of TV is supposed to erode our minds and moral compasses. Most are tailored to the dimensions of a movie screen, with a 16:9 width-to-height ratio, as opposed to the 4:3 ratio of traditional television.

Conventional sets, meanwhile, still look pretty good to the casual viewer, especially some of the newer models. Moreover, several salesmen assured me that they are still selling quite well, and that because the government is dragging its feet, I could safely buy a good old-fashioned analog set with little fear of regretting the purchase before it too Hulked out on me.

Still, I thought, there must be some intermediate ground--something between buying a potential Edsel and blowing several grand merely to discern every mole during the "I Hate My Wife's Sexy Clothes" episode of "Jerry Springer."

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