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  •   Digital TV Discussion With Fast Forward Editor Rob Pegoraro

    Friday, January 29, 1999

    Rob Pegoraro Rob Pegoraro began writing about the Internet for The Post back in 1994, which meant he had a Web page up before the Post did (the quality of it was another matter entirely). A few gray hairs, multiple trade shows and several bottles of Advil later, he became editor of Fast Forward in September 1997. There, he reports on, reviews, and often yells at home computers, Web sites, Internet providers, video games and other things that beep.

    Pegoraro was online discussing digital television, or HDTV. To learn more about high-definition TV, read Fast Forward's special report and the following transcript:

    Boulder, Colorado: What advertising and viewing options do you see happening with HDTV? Personally I foresee the use of the extra screen width for continuous advertising a la the web during broadcast of old format TV programs. I can also see a PPV set up for sports where one would buy the extra screen width.

    Rob Pegoraro: Boulder -

    Absolutely. Say, hypothetically speaking, if a football team from Colorado is in a championship game of some sort, you could use the extra digital bandwidth to send over updated stats on each player's performance, current beer consumption in the stadium, "visit Denver" ads and so on.

    This could really help, I suppose, in sports like soccer, where you've got long stretches of play without commercial breaks built in. Or it could be completely annoying--you'd have to look between the banner ads and stock tickers and whatnot to actually see what's going on.


    Washington DC: For someone who is interested in starting a new television network, how is HDTV going to help? What would be the best way to get your network up? The reason why I ask this is because HDTV will give cable providers more room in which to carry more channels, but what's the step in getting into their system?

    Rob Pegoraro: Digital (not HDTV, which is a version of digital) can give cable systems more channels, yes, but I'm not so sure that this extra bandwidth would necessarily translate to more offbeat programming – you might get the Furry Animal Channel, but you might wind up with just 10 more flavors of HBO and MTV.

    Also – HDTV is way too expensive for any startup network to use. Plain old standard-definition digital or analog will continue to be the way to get off the ground in the industry.


    Arlington, VA: Submitted this question for your last, ill-fated (apparently) chat:

    What do you think of Apple's chances? Is the iMac gonna make thema one-hit wonder? Or can they go the distance?

    Rob Pegoraro: Yes, sorry about that mess. The hamster that spins the treadmill that powers this server got tired, and his stand-in was taking a nap. What a mess.

    Anyway... I'm feeling pretty confident about Apple these days, despite having been a major unfan of Steve Jobs when he first took over the company and executed a lot of major strategic shifts (ending licensing of the Mac OS) without offering an explanation beyond "trust me." Big question: Can they keep up the R&D effort they need while Intel, Msoft, etc. dump much more money into that area? Should be interesting to watch!


    Arlington, VA: What's the story on the next generation Palm Pilot? I hear it's coming out with color. Should I wait before buying a Palm until the new one comes out?

    Rob Pegoraro: Tough question. There's been very little hard info on this subject. What I can tell you is that a Palm/3Com flack wanted to talk to us about "future products that have not yet been announced," but only if we'd sign a non-disclosure agreement. We don't sign those, so we had to pass on the briefing.

    Odds are there's something new coming out soon – I'd guess with a better screen and more memory, but not much more than that. Here's one report: http://www.techweb.com/wire/story/TWB19990121S0012. But if you need a Pilot now, go ahead and buy it. Any new device will cost more than the $270 you'd be spending on a Palm III now.


    Washington, D.C.: Rob: How do you decide which games to review?

    Rob Pegoraro: We consider a few things (these apply to just about all of our review choices, actually):

    1) Is the product something that's going to be heavily promoted and generally in everyone's face? (e.g., Tomb Raider, Windows 98, Mac OS 8.5)

    2) Is it a significant advance over competing products, or earlier versions of itself? (For instance, we don't review expansion packs for games, but sequels that add something are worth checking out.)

    3) If it's an obscure title from a little-known developer, is it good enough to let people know about, even if they have to go to extra lengths to obtain it? Whereas if it's obscure and it sucks, why bother? I think Phyllis Richman has said the same thing about restaurants, which makes sense – a review is a review is a review.

    If it's hyped and very good, we can say "yes, it's actually OK." If it's hyped and very bad, then we can warn people away.


    Portland, Oregon: Rob, Do you think that eventually we will have one monitor that does the work of both the computer and television? How far away are we from that type of display?

    Rob Pegoraro: Digital TV sets should *theoretically* be capable of this. The DTV specifications require that sets accept both an "interlaced" video signal – like what's on TV now, where every other scan line is refreshed 60 times a second – and a progressive signal, which is what you have on computer monitors (the entire screen is refreshed all at once, which means the image shouldn't flicker up close). However, you'd still need the right plugs, etc. on the back of the TV... it's just that this kind of adapter hassle would be easier than it is now.

    One question, though: Why would you want a set that handles both chores? The average TV set is a lot bigger than the average monitor, they're used in different rooms and for different purposes, etc. It's not something I'm super-anxious to have in my house....


    Vienna, VA: Which, do you think, will be the dominant format for digital TV: HDTV or SDTV? I'm hoping for HDTV myself. It would be a shame to make all the investment into digital TV and not take advantage of the best picture quality available.

    Rob Pegoraro: That is the *BIG* question about digital TV. I mean, if HDTV hadn't existed as the ideal digital format, I tend to doubt that the industry would have agreed to this hugely expensive transition. And, personally speaking, HDTV is utterly phenomenal to look at. I'd like one in my house someday, although I'd rather not have to hock my car to buy it.

    And that's the problem. People in the industry keep talking about the huge sunk costs of digital TV R&D, the high manufacturing expenses, etc., but, you know, I really don't care. I will *not* drop $6,000, or even $3,000, on a TV set. That's just insane. Period. And until they can get past this problem, HDTV will have real problems in the market.


    Minneapolis, MN: Are dtv and hdtv going to make analog vcr's obsolete? Do the new digital tv formats only work with digital vcrs?

    Rob Pegoraro: Yup – you need a digital VCR to record anything off a digital set. Those, of course, aren't too cheap either.

    Or you could simply wait for the industry to quit wringing its hands so much over copy-protection issues and competing technologies, grow up, get its act together and decide on a unified, cheap, reliable standard for recordable digital video discs. [The writer cackles cynically at the odds of that...]


    Chicago, IL: In your opinion, when will hdtv become reasonably priced
    (say $2-3,000 for a 32") and when will there be a sufficient level of program to justify the purchase of a set?

    Rob Pegoraro: I asked every TV manufacturer I talked to at CES about that. Most were pretty sure it wouldn't be happening anytime in the next two to three years. The problem is that an HDTV set includes some very high-end optics that have to be manufactured to precise tolerances. Nobody has much experience at this – it's as if regular TVs are a pair of binoculars, while HDTV is the Hubble Telescope.

    Programming? That's real hard to say. I can't see HD programming moving beyond a niche sort of thing until there's a big enough audience to sell lots of ads to.


    Washingtonpost.com: We're halfway through our chat with Fast Forward editor Rob Pegoraro. You may continue to submit questions.


    Arlington, VA: I'm skeptical of DTV, DSS, DVD – are these technologies just toys for gadget-heads?

    Rob Pegoraro: Your skepticism is well-founded, but there are real advances behind these technologies. Take the last two technologies you mentioned – digital satellite systems and digital video disc. Both deliver much better picture and sound than you can get on cable or videotape; in the case of VHS vs. DVD, there is *so* little contest. And the operating costs of digital satellite can be quite a bit less than cable, which is why, like, seven million people are DSS subscribers. But prices on those two technologies have collapsed in a way that hasn't happened yet with digital TV.

    Digital TV, certainly its standard-definition form, will cost less over time – if you're not dealing with HD, it's basically new electronics, which almost always get fasterbettercheaper year after year.


    Laurel, MD: Should I hesitate to buy a new TV or VCR?

    Rob Pegoraro: No, not at all. Worst-case scenario, analog signals go off the air in seven years, at which point you'd have to buy a digital converter (which really should be cheap by then, honest).

    In the meantime, you won't be missing much. The movie theater still works for delivering HD pictures and surround sound, TV as we know it carries on. And analog TVs are about as cheap as they're going to get (one reason why the industry is generally hopeful about DTV – it can reinflate profit margins for a wile).


    Alexandria, VA: Digital TV brings along with it the idea of interactivity. Do you see the television industry embracing this concept? I for one would rather sit back and relax, do you see the public embracing interactivity?

    Rob Pegoraro: I'm extremely skeptical about interactive TV. When I turn on the idiot box, I don't want to be interactive – I want to be inactive. I'm there to be entertained or informed (well, sometimes), not to play games or click on "buy this" buttons on the screen. Same thing with books, CDs, movies and plays.

    Every attempt at interactive TV to date has flopped, which makes me suspect I'm not alone in this.


    Sterling, VA: Hey Rob, I thought the government gave TV Stations in certain markets a whole lot of money to convert to digital programming? Are these stations obligated to convert, and if so, when?

    Rob Pegoraro: Nope. The only "subsidy" TV stations have gotten is the extra chunk of the airwaves needed to send out digital signals. All other costs – cameras, studios, production facilities, antennas – are being borne by stations and networks. These can add up to a lot, especially putting up new broadcast towers.

    The FCC has mandated that stations begin broadcasting in digital on a fairly strict timetable, but I wouldn't place too much stock in the 2006 deadline for shutting off analog broadcasts. (The idea behind that, incidentally, is to return the chunk of the electromagnetic spectrum used for analog TV to the government, where it can be reassigned or auctioned off for other uses.) No Congressbeing in his/her right mind will ever vote to take away Grandma's TV.


    Woodbridge, VA: Is consumer technology a personal interest of yours? Or did you get assigned this beat? What is your background?

    Rob Pegoraro: I think you're asking if I'm a geek :)

    Well, yes, I've enjoyed playing with gadgets and computers and whatnot for a long time, but it's not something I started writing about until I'd been at the Post for the better part of a year, when FFWD launched and Style inaugurated its "Cybersurfing" column. Basically, I had the good timing and/or dumb luck to get into the Internet about 10 seconds before the Post decided to start covering it in more depth.


    Alexandria, VA: what the h#$% is DIVX? i know what dvd is – i have several myself – but keep hearing about dvd/divx. please explain.
    thanks!

    Rob Pegoraro: Briefly, Divx is a pay-per-view variant of digital video discs. When you "buy" a Divx disc for $5 or so, you actually buy a 48-hour viewing period, which starts whenever you actually hit the play button for this particular disc. When the viewing period times out, any subsequent viewings of the flick cost you $3.25 (the Divx player, which costs about $100 more than a comparable DVD player, must be plugged into a phone line to send this billing information to the Divx computers).

    The idea is you don't have to return the movie or force yourself to watch it before its due date, but since a) you can rent DVDs for quite a bit less than $5 at any Hollywood Video, Blockbuster, etc. and b) Divx discs are only available in Circuit City stores here, this is kinda silly. For these reasons, we strongly discourage anybody from investing in Divx hardware.


    College Park, MD: Will all this digital technology make computers, telephones, beepers, etc more secure when transferring information to prevent someone from scanning your transmission frequencies?

    Rob Pegoraro: In most cases, yes. Compare a digital spread-spectrum cordless phone to a regular one – or a PCS wireless phone to an analog cellular phone. In both cases, the digital transmission is far more eavesdropping-resistant than its analog predecessor, which transmits everything in unencrypted form. That doesn't mean that the Men In Black might not be able to tap into things with enough work, but it *is* more than enough to shut out just about everybody else.


    washington, D.C: As an alternative to over the air or cable based delivery of HDTV programming, what are the prospects for delivering HDTV programming via the Internet?

    Rob Pegoraro: Very little indeed. An HDTV signal is something like... lessee... damn, can't find the statistic. Anyway, we're talking a lot of data here, more than could be fit in most current residential Internet connections, and real-time audio and video just does not work well over the Net. It isn't designed for that purpose.


    Rockville, MD: When will DSS subscribers be able to get the local networks via the satellite provider?

    Rob Pegoraro: One of the (soon to be two) satellite providers, Dish Network (www.dishnetwork.com) does offer this. Right now, though, you need to buy a separate dish to pull down the network signals (when they launch another two satellites this year, that should change), and you need to be certified as incapable of receiving an acceptable over-the-air signal. This is a regulatory thing, and the cable companies are trying to close what they see as a loophole.



    Arlington, VA: I get so sick of hearing how community is the next killer app on the Web. I think the closest people really want to get to interactivity is something like this...I go online to do stuff and be left alone. Agree? Disagree?

    Rob Pegoraro: I agree. I've spent enough time in various Usenet newsgroups to know that it's very hard for a real, living sense of community to arise. It's not just about throwing up some message boards on a Web site and pitching the concept to Wall Street. Also, there's no way these new community sites can all work anyway – how many places do we need to talk about the latest episode of "Ally McBeal" or whatever, anyway? Personally, I stick to a small set of newsgroups, most of which I've been a participant in for three or four years now – that's about all I have time for.

    Speaking of interactivity [self-promotion time] I'll be on NewsChannel 8 this afternoon at 1:10, talking about digital TV, and tomorrow evening I'll be on the "Tech Radio" talk show on WJFK (106.7 FM), chatting about more of this stuff. Tune in if you can; thanks for stopping by. See y'all two weeks from now...

    - Rob


    Washingtonpost.com: That wraps up our live discussion with Fast Forward editor Rob Pegoraro. Thanks to everyone for participating, and be sure to join us again on February 12.


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