Defining Visions: High-Wire Act

These are days of uncertainty and foment in the world of digital television. Everything seems to be in flux—except the sales figures for digital TVs. They are on an inexorable climb north. But consider some of the other debates festering under the glitter that manufacturers like to throw into the air.

Two years ago last month, the very last of the nation's 1680 television stations were to have begun broadcasting digital signals. Until recently, that was a relatively academic issue for most viewers because they had to buy a tuner box and put an antenna on the roof to make use of this free source of occasional high-definition broadcasts.

But now, under a government mandate, most big-screen sets are being sold with digital tuners built-in. And the quality of these tuners has improved so much that, now, many people can receive a digital signal with a relatively unsophisticated indoor antenna costing $35 to $50.

All of a sudden, over-the-air HDTV is easily available—and now the number of prime-time high-definition broadcasts is quite high. The problem is, 189 TV stations nationwide are still not on the air with a digital signal. And the Federal Communications Commission has granted 85 of them another six-month extension. Obviously, I cannot list all of them here, but if you are wondering whether your favorite station is among them, visit the FCC or National Association of Broadcasters Web sites for lists of the 1491 stations now broadcasting a digital signal. The 85 stations that got new extensions on top of several that had been previously granted were told that if they are not on the air by next spring, they will lose their digital licenses.

All of this could come to a head very soon. Momentum continues to build in Congress for a bill that would require television stations to return their analog frequencies as soon as next year, no matter what. Under current law, TV stations must turn off their analog transmitters and give back their analog spectrum if 85 percent of their viewers are capable of receiving a digital signal, starting in 2006. Leaping into this fray, Thomson, the manufacturer of RCA sets, says they will begin to market very-low-priced, standard-definition digital sets beginning later this year. A 27-inch model will cost less than $300 (which usually means $299.95) and a 32-inch model will be less than $400.

"Recognizing that smaller-sized, low-cost televisions far outsell other categories," a Thomson press release notes, the company is jumping in to fill the void with these RCA-brand sets. A standard-definition digital television could simply be a conventional set with an analog, NTSC tuner as well as a digital tuner and circuitry to downconvert the signal to 480i, the NTSC format. Expect more of this from mainstream manufacturers.

In the meantime, one can buy a 32-inch HDTV monitor from Samsung for $699—only $300 more than the RCA set. Add to that the cost of a digital receiver; the least expensive one I've seen, the Humax HFA 100 (see my review), can be bought for $199. So the price differential for high-definition stands at about $500 today.

One of the most exciting potential developments in the high-definition world is the high-definition DVD, which would make HDTV available to anyone willing to buy a player and rent or buy the discs. These players are on the way; the first of them are expected to be available by the end of the year. But, not surprisingly, there is a potential format war brewing between the group led by Toshiba, which is offering a format called HD DVD, and another group led by Sony offering the Blu-ray format.

Both sides have lined up studios and hardware manufacturers in their camps. Across the industry, however, there is fear that both formats may be still-born if consumers have to choose—just as SACD and DVD-Audio, competing high-resolution audio formats, have both failed to gain much consumer acceptance after several years of competition.

But now, according to reports in the Japanese media, Sony and Toshiba are in negotiations to create a common format out of their two competing standards. The Japanese reports said that Disney and other studios have insisted that the two competitors create a common format because the studios did not want to cripple the launch of this very important new product with a format war.

Both sides are racing to have product on sale by Christmas, and Toshiba, at least, seems well along the way. It's highly unlikely that the two camps can come to a technical agreement and then design and build products around it by the end of this year. So we may face the unfortunate situation of one or both camps offering new players for sale that will then be supplanted by a third, compromise format. Beware.

The drama continues. Ever since the idea to design a high-definition television system was born in 1988, the birth and development of digital television has been a high-wire act, always on the verge of losing balance and tumbling. Don't expect that to end anytime soon.