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A Tube For Tomorrow

The FCC clears the way for high-definition digital tv's long-delayed debut. is this a good thing?

BY Michael Krantz

TIME magazine

(TIME, April 14) -- Every nation gets the TV it deserves. And 1990s America, a land replete with both couch potatoes and high-tech capitalists, surely deserves high-definition television (HDTV), the digital TV signal whose aesthetic pleasures and economic efficiencies will transform the shows we watch and the boxes we watch them on. Last week the Federal Communications Commission voted to give broadcasters free channels on which to broadcast digital versions of their current programs. A few questions about the future of the boob tube:

Q: What's so great about digital TV?

A: Pretty much everything. Digital signals' startling improvements in visual detail and color produce a picture that looks almost 3-D compared to analog. For programming suited to a wide screen--movies and sports in particular--the leap from analog to digital could well be as striking as that from black and white to color.

For broadcasters, meanwhile, digital TV promises vast new revenue streams, of which high-quality HDTV is only the most obvious. There will be room on the new, highly efficient digital channels to offer pay-per-view, paging, home shopping and even data traffic from the Internet.

Q: If it's such a gold mine, why did the FCC give broadcasters, at least for now, free access to the digital spectrum?

A: Depending on whom you ask, the answer is either 1) because broadcasters have had Washington in their hip pocket for decades, or 2) because the start-up costs are going to be dramatic. Both are partly true. The FCC has long doled out airwave space gratis, and the networks, especially, have got rich as a result. But broadcasters will have to spend the next decade sending out pricey digital versions of their programs alongside the original ones while the audience for digital TV slowly builds. After nine years, the broadcasters are to return their old analog spectrum for auction by the government.

Q: Speaking of the audience, what does digital TV mean for subscribers to cable and direct-broadcast satellite?

A: Well, neither cable nor DBS yet possesses digital capability, so when HDTV is offered two years from now, those slacker 30% of U.S. households that still get only over-the-air, rabbit-ears TV will, ironically, end up ahead of the technology curve.

But cable and DBS can't ignore the digital future. So they'll probably have to upgrade eventually to support digital traffic--although the additional bandwidth will cut into the number of channels they can offer--while cable services like HBO retool to produce digital shows. A few years hence, your local cable or satellite guy will start offering, alongside the usual 60 analog channels, a tier of scintillating HDTV programming, with brilliant color and sound...

Q: O.K., O.K. When will HDTVs be available, and how much will they cost?

A: The first sets should arrive late next year, priced around $2,000. But like other electronic products, they'll get cheaper quickly, while adding frills like multiplayer gaming and Web cruising.

Q: So digital TV will turn my boob tube into a computer? Or is it vice versa?

A: Both. A computer processes digital information, so in theory a computer with the right antenna could pick up an HDTV signal. A television, on the other hand, is just a device for displaying video and sound. Once it's geared to receive the new broadcasts, it is by definition a type of computer. And as such, it will also be capable of accepting commands from a viewer using a keyboard, a mouse or a joystick. This is what futurists call interactive television (ITV). The promise of ITV is why this week's National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas will teem with the likes of Compaq, Sun, Intel and Microsoft, showing off systems that piggyback "data broadcasting" onto digital TV signals. Silicon Valley already rules your study; now the nerds are trying to take over your family room.

Q: How long can I resist and keep my analog set?

Q: The FCC has set 2006 as the year broadcasters can stop delivering analog TV altogether, thus rendering obsolete an estimated 240 million sets and forcing us all to buy digital TVs--or at least analog-to-digital converter boxes.

Q: Will regular analog TV really disappear entirely by 2006?

A: Did LP records completely disappear when CDs came along?

Q: Will the shows themselves get better when HDTV takes over?

A: Dream on. There are certain things in life that even computers cannot be expected to accomplish.

Sharpening TV's Image

ANALOG (conventional) TV Analog signals are delivered to the TV as a stream of constantly changing radio waves. The nearly square picture is represented in 480 horizontal lines

DIGITAL HDTV These signals come to the TV as electronic 0s and 1s--computer language. The picture is rectangular, like the one in a movie theater; and it has up to 1,080 lines of resolution, making it extremely sharp. The sound is also digital, which gives it CD quality. The signal can be compressed, allowing networks the option of sending out one or two high definition programs or several lower-resolution programs, all in the same broadcast channel currently required to deliver a single analog program.

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