Defining Visions: And the Winner Is...

HDTV is here—for better or worse.

During the fall of 1998—six years ago—the US government and the broadcast industry launched the transition to digital television amid many questions, doubts, and remaining technical hurdles. Today, questions remain in every area, but one big uncertainty has been settled: For better or for worse, high-definition television has won.

For a long time, no one knew what consumers would want. Would most people prefer the crystal clarity of high definition? Would they like the flexibility offered by multicasting—viewing several different program streams broadcast over a single digital channel? Or would they embrace the promise that a digital TV offers to turn the television into an interactive device not so different from a computer?

Different industry camps embraced each of these possible futures, and each has been tried in one form or another. But from the beginning, analysts (including this one) discounted the viability of the second two ideas. For multicasting, why would consumers embrace from over-the-air broadcasters what they can already get in more fulsome form from cable or satellite services? And how could a broadcaster fill four or five digital channels with appealing programming—and advertising—when most of them now struggle to fill even one?

Many stations are trying multicasting, including two here in Washington, DC. None I have heard of has found the idea profitable. In fact, PBS, the most logical user of multicasting, acknowledged in September that the strategy wasn't working. Underwriters were unwilling to pay for more than one signal per channel, and "the reality is that neither we nor the commercial broadcasters have been able to implement business plans to utilize this capacity," said John Lawson, president of the Association of Public Television Stations.

As for using the television for interactive and data services, the trials of this idea—heavily promoted by the computer industry back in 1996 and 1997—have been fewer. And no wonder. All along, analysts (again including me) have argued that people bought computers and TVs for fundamentally different purposes. Computers are set up at "work stations." When you start a DVD, you hit Play. People generally don't want to work when they watch TV—they want to relax and be entertained. So the use of a digital TV as an interactive device has not been pushed by manufacturers. The idea does not appear to have long legs today.

Nor, from the beginning, did HDTV appear to be a certain proposition. After all, the nation embraced VCRs back in the 1980s, even though videotapes offered only half the resolution of broadcast TV. And when cable companies began offering digital cable back in the mid-1990s, people bought it without complaint, even though most cable operators dialed down the resolution of digital cable to VHS quality. So who would really care about HDTV?

Lots of people, it turns out. While the public embraced VCRs, they bought up DVD players at an even more rapid clip. DVDs offer improved picture clarity. And in recent months, folks have been buying DTVs at an equally rapid pace. For the first 36 weeks of 2004, consumers bought 2.5 million digital televisions—a 48% increase over last year.

Everyone who follows this issue knows that there's quite a lot of high-definition programming available today, whether you're watching over-the-air TV, cable, or satellite. But I offer here two more telling indicators that HDTV has won.

The first comes from DirecTV, now owned by News Corp., whose chief executive is Rupert Murdoch. News Corp. also owns the Fox TV network, which from the beginning has wholly dismissed HDTV and has been the laggard in providing any high-definition programming. Back in the late 1990s, when the Senate was berating the networks to air HDTV, all of them complied—except Fox.

But then, in September 2004, DirecTV announced that it would launch four new satellites between 2005 and 2007 for the primary purpose of providing customers nationwide with more than 1000 local HDTV channels—the local digital channels that most local stations now broadcast with network HD programming in the evening. That, to me, is a notable turnaround.

Then there's the Sinclair Broadcast Group, owner of 62 TV stations in 39 cities. Also back in the 1990s, Sinclair put on a rather public campaign to overturn the digital-television standard, saying picture quality and picture reception were poor. Sinclair's leaders said they had no plans to air HDTV.

Fast forward to today. In early fall, Sinclair announced that it will begin airing public-service announcements to promote HDTV, to advise viewers that they can watch high-definition program, on their Sinclair stations and don't need to switch to cable or satellite.

Even Microsoft—which lobbied heavily in the mid-1990s that HDTV was unnecessary, that 480p was good enough—now seems willing to pursue high-definition business. The Blu-ray Association, representing Sony and other companies pushing Blu-ray as the high-definition optical disc format, announced this fall that Microsoft had won a contract for high-definition compression for Blu-ray discs.

Enough said?