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So retro, so high-tech

Take an old-fashioned roof antenna and a newfangled high-definition TV, wire them both up and you're all set for a crystal-clear view from your couch.

September 04, 2003|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Want to see your favorite network shows and sporting events in high-definition television, the state of the art in digital TV technology?

Get a ladder.

In an odd confluence of high tech and retro, the only way to currently get all the broadcast HDTV offerings -- including the U.S. Open tennis matches this week on CBS -- is to put an old-fashioned TV antenna on the roof. Just like Dad or Granddad did in the 1950s.

It's one of the decreasing number of obstacles that home dwellers face in getting the much-hyped, rarely seen HDTV. Just take a glance at the glorious picture -- which has so much clarity and depth that it makes regular TV look as if it were being viewed through a dirty windshield -- and you start thinking that a return to yesteryear with a spindly antenna on the roof might not be so bad.

Add to that a steady increase in cable and satellite HDTV offerings, and a decrease in the price of television sets capable of showing true "high def" (many of the plasma, LCD and projection TVs already in homes fit that category), and the long-predicted HDTV invasion seems nearly at hand.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
DirecTV pricing -- In an article about high-definition television in the Sept. 4 Home section, the price of getting all of the HDTV channels offered by DirecTV was given as $99 a month. That price is for a premium package. Getting the channels individually costs $74 a month.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 25, 2003 Home Edition Home Part F Page 7 Features Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
DirecTV pricing -- In a Sept. 4 article about high-definition television, the price of getting all of the HDTV channels offered by DirecTV was given as $99 a month. That price is for a premium package. Getting the channels individually costs $74 a month.

It's not yet plug-and-play, but full-fledged HDTV is now accessible to anyone with the cash -- ranging from several thousand dollars to a few extra bucks per month, depending on the equipment already owned and the area in which one lives -- and a bit of patience.

"It's still at the point where we have to walk people through it," said Tom Campbell, corporate director of Ken Crane's Home Entertainment, a chain of electronics shops. "But for someone a little adventurous, it's a lot easier and less expensive than it used to be."

In upscale areas, where HDTV has attracted early users, antennas have been making a comeback. "I woke up one morning and could see a couple of the antennas right from my bedroom window," said Erin Peacock, a public relations consultant who lives in Newport Coast, a gated Orange County community known for its ocean views. "One of my neighbors was freaking out about it, but she was told that it was for HDTV and the community couldn't do anything about it."

In America, you have the right to put any antenna of your choosing on a roof you own; so says the Telecommunications Act of 1996. No state law, regional regulation or even all-mighty homeowners association can stand in your way, with rare exceptions. On my roof I found the remnants of the former TV antenna age -- two somewhat-rusted pole mounts attached to the chimney. One of them was still usable.

On a recent morning, I and an adventurous editor installed an aluminum Winegard antenna (about $100), with jaw-like signal-catchers that give it an "Alien" look. It took us only a couple of hours to set up the antenna and the rest of the HD equipment -- a Zenith 30-inch LCD monitor (about $2,800), plus a digital tuner capable of receiving cable, satellite and over-the-air signals (about $600).

We were done in time to watch the one and only regular daytime network show broadcast in high def: "The Young and the Restless." There was Brad on the phone, up to no good, his too-long sideburns glistening in wide-screen HDTV.

Not the most thrilling use of the medium. But come nighttime, there was a surprising amount of HD available, considering the relatively few viewers equipped to see it.

"The national broadcast networks show many of their prime-time, scripted shows in HD," said Dale Cripps, publisher of HDTV Magazine, a daily e-mailed schedule of HD offerings (subscriptions for $35 a year are available at www.ilovehdtv.com). "They want these shows archived in HD to make them more valuable in syndication for the future."

You can see such varied shows as "Alias," "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Law & Order," "Yes, Dear," "ER" and "Reba" in HDTV.

Not all HDTV network offerings are scripted. The "Tonight Show" was one of the first to go high def. And some sporting events, such as "Monday Night Football" and the aforementioned tennis tournament, are shown in the format. The live sports shows, when captured with cameras equipped for high definition, are particularly appealing because of their outdoor locales and fast action.

The local PBS station KCET-TV shows an entirely separate programming schedule on its HD channel, and its programs are among the highest in technical quality. But they are few in number, resulting in their airing with numbing regularity. On Labor Day, you could have seen the hourlong documentary "Aleutians: Cradle of the Storms" five times in high definition.

All these broadcast HD channels can be accessed in most parts of Southern California with an external antenna. Or if you are in an area with particularly strong TV signals, an interior antenna can be used.

Eventually, this need for 1950s technology will probably become almost extinct again, as cable and satellite TV providers complete deals with the networks to make more HDTV channels available on their services.

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