An article in some editions of Friday's Business section said WJLA-TV has not begun digital broadcasts. It should have said that ABC's Washington affiliate has yet to begin broadcasts in high-definition television; it does transmit a lower-resolution, "standard-definition" digital signal. (Published 01/11/2000)
This year, you'll finally be able to watch the Super Bowl in high-definition television. Only not in Washington--the local ABC affiliate, WJLA, hasn't even begun its digital broadcasts.
It's been like that for digital television since before the first $10,000 HDTV set went on sale in the late summer of 1998. Digital TV--and in particular its flashiest, most expensive, most stunningly beautiful variant, high-definition TV--has been a puzzle of a technology. The pictures it can splash across a 60-inch screen are beyond fabulous in clarity. But the prices for those sets are equally eye-popping (a "cheap" high-definition TV now costs $3,000 or so). The selection of digital programs is growing. But you can't watch any of them on cable in the Washington area.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Arlington-based trade group that organizes this annual gathering, announced today that more than 100,000 digital or "digital-ready" sets had been sold to dealers and repeated earlier predictions that 600,000 sets will be shipped this year.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman William E. Kennard planned to announce at the show Friday that broadcasters and TV manufacturers have until April to settle compatibility problems or face an FCC mandate on the issue, the Associated Press reported.
Manufacturers say they're pleased with the results so far. "We're at projections only because we've sold everything we could make," said Jerry Surprise, a product manager at Panasonic. "The response was better than anything we'd projected."
But how many of these sets include the digital circuitry needed to receive broadcasts, whether other the air or via satellite?
"Ninety-plus percent of this is high-frequency or high-scan product without digital tuners built in," said John Revie, Sony's director of consumer television products. "Theoretically, the consumer can buy a set-top box later on." Without that equipment, an "HDTV-ready" set can make existing programming and DVD movies look much better, but it can't show any of the high-definition pictures being broadcast by the major networks, some Public Broadcasting Service affiliates and HBO.
"It's kind of two different mentalities," said Rich Hurlburt, manager of the systems installation group at Myer-Emco in Tysons Corner. "One is the early adopter. The other is the kind that's trying to future-proof their technology purchase--'I'm hedging my bet; I'm going to get a great picture on my DVD.' "
How much high-definition content you'll be able to pull in with a digital tuner is another issue. Broadcast networks, helped by subsidies from TV manufacturers, have put a decent chunk of their schedules on the air in digital form. But cable companies, with few exceptions, have declined to carry this digital programming; the bandwidth needed for one high-definition signal could be used to transmit multiple compressed digital signals, a much more profitable proposition considering the tiny installed base of digital sets.
"Would we like to see more [cable operators] come online faster?" said Jeff Josephs, the Consumer Electronics Association's vice president. "Yes, we would. The fact is, there are other solutions that consumers can turn to. One is satellite. Another is good old over-the-air--we've seen antenna sales explode."
Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research--and one of HDTV's foremost skeptics--said over-the-air reception poses further problems. "The good news is, the stations have mostly met their deadline, and the equipment appears to be working properly, and the sets have come down significantly in price," he said. "The bad news is these questions about whether the transmission standard is workable."
Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group has been petitioning the FCC to revise the technology standard used to broadcast digital TV to make it more resistant to "multipath interference" (what makes analog signals "ghost") in urban areas. Most other companies in the business, including such set manufacturers as Thomson and Philips, have rejected Sinclair's request, saying improved tuning equipment will get around this problem.
Stay tuned for more controversy on that point, not to mention cable companies' cooperation and the issue of what kinds of sets can properly be labeled HDTV. This technology has a way to go. And there's still the issue of those prices.
"Not a lot of American families can pay $5,000 for that 56-inch [projection] TV," said Panasonic's Surprise. "We need to expand the market. We need to give the broadcasters a reason to produce this high-definition signal."
CAPTION: An exhibitor at Casio Computer Co.'s booth displays the Cassiopeia, a palm-size personal computer, at the Consumer Electronics Show yesterday in Las Vegas.