Monday, November 01, 1999

How soon for HDTV? It's future is unclear

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        There's something different in the air. Have you seen it?

        The digital TV era has dawned at the Tristate's four major network affiliates: WKRC-TV, WCPO-TV, WLWT and WXIX-TV.

        Today is the government-imposed deadline for TV stations in Cincinnati and other Top 30 markets to broadcast digital television, which will replace the 50-year-old analog system.

        In other words, it's the beginning of the end of TV as we know it.

        Walk through Circuit City, Best Buy and other electronics stores and you'll see the new wide-screen high-definition television (HDTV) sets. HDTV sets have a horizontal 16-by-9 ratio, in contrast to the 4-by-3 dimension of your current set.

        Think of the difference between a postcard and a Polaroid.

        If stores stayed opened later, you could watch Channel 9's HDTV broadcast of ABC's Monday Night Football tonight. You'd be mesmerized at seeing all 22 players on the field at once on the wide screen, and thrilled to see how each play develops.

        HDTV literally will change how you watch TV. But how soon? That's the Great Unknown. The Federal Communications Commission expects the transition to be complete by 2006. But too many things have to happen:

        • TV stations: It will take at least 21/2 years for all the local stations to broadcast a digital signal. WCET-TV (Channel 48) and other public stations have until May 2002 to go digital.

        Technically, only two stations — Channels 9 and 12 — have met today's FCC deadline. Channels 5 and 19 have been granted waivers because of equipment delays.

        • TV programming: Stations now are converting their present analog picture into a digital format to meet the FCC deadline.

        Only a few programs — Everybody Loves Raymond, Monday Night Football and some movies — originate in HDTV. Stations won't have equipment for doing local HDTV telecasts for at least two years.

        “People aren't going to pay $7,500 for an HDTV set yet because there's nothing to watch,” says Bill Fee, Channel 9 general manager.

        • TV sets: Some have compared the conversion from black-and-white to color TV with the digital revolution. A better example was the change from AM to FM radio.

        “It's a totally different system. If you wanted FM, you had to buy an FM radio, you couldn't use your AM radio,” says Leon Brown, Channel 12 chief engineer.

        As with FM, you will be able to buy a converter for your old set. But you won't see the crystal-clear picture after the signal is changed to the inferior analog system.

        Consumers should be prepared for sticker shock. HDTV sets can cost 10 times more than conventional TVs. (Best Buy sells a 34-inch diagonal Sony HDTV tube set for $6,500.)

        But the starting price for big projection HDTVs are close to analog projection TVs. (A 65-inch diagonal projection Toshiba HDTV costs about $7,500, says Best Buy spokeswoman Laurie Bauer.)

        You also may buy your HDTV in components, as you do for audio systems and computers. Many projection HDTVs don't come with a receiver (also called a tuner or “decoder”). You also will likely add a DVD (digital video disc) player and speakers to your home entertainment center.

        • Cable: Those who spend thousands on HDTV sets now won't find the local digital channels on cable TV. Many technical, legal and regulatory issues must be resolved.

        “We'd like to carry those signals, because we think it's good for our customers,” says Virgil Reed, Time Warner Cincinnati Division president. “We're willing to work with stations, and hopefully will have those signals on at some point, but they're not on at this time.”

        • How soon: How quickly you'll go digital is a subject of great debate:

        To some, it's the chicken-or-egg dilemma: Prices won't come down until consumer demand goes up, and consumer demand won't go up until prices go down.

        Channel 9's Mr. Fee says people won't buy HDTV sets until more programs are available and prices come down.

        Channel 12's Mr. Brown says people will buy one after seeing HDTV's incredible clarity.

        “Once they see Monday Night Football in a bar, in the wide aspect ratio with all the players, they'll buy it as soon as the price drops,” says Jack Dominic, WCET-TV vice president.

        So far, no bars here have made the investment. (TV grew rapidly in the 1950s through exposure in bars and restaurants.) Channel 9 failed to interest sports bars in a Monday Night Football HDTV promotion this fall because “it was too expensive for them,” says Jim Timmerman, Channel 9 program director.

        Maybe next year — or sometime in the next millennium — sports bars will ignite interest in HDTV.

        “The change to color TV took a long time, and that wasn't nearly as much of a leap forward in technology,” says Bruce Drushel, Miami University communications professor. “We could be talking about the Y3K problem before this happens.”

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. His column appears Monday and Wednesday. Write: 312 Elm St., Cincinnati 45202; fax: 768-8330.