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Pricey digital TV is next techno frontier

digital television

Boosters promise sharper picture, more services

April 3, 1997
Web posted at: 9:10 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Get ready for what is being called the biggest technological advance in television since the days when grainy black and white gave way to the vibrant peacock of color.

But get ready to pay for the privilege of life on the technological frontier known as digital TV.

HDTV: New TV, but not just digital

Thanks to a Federal Communications Commission decision reached Thursday, network-affiliated stations in the 10 largest U.S. television markets will start broadcasting their programming using a digital format within the next two years. All U.S. broadcasters will follow suit within six years.

In technical terms, that means the information sent over the airwaves into people's homes -- which is then translated by the television set into the picture they see -- will be sent using a different method.

black and white

So what's the big deal? Well, say boosters of the new technology, viewers will get a much better picture, and broadcasters will be able to offer an expanded range of services because the new format allows more information to be packed into a TV signal.

"[The picture] will be sharp. It will be clear. It could be very, very different from what you see right now," promises Reed Hundt, chairman of the FCC. "You might like it a lot."

New digital sets could cost $5,000

But to take advantage of digital's advantages, viewers will have to buy a new TV set. Today's analog sets can't read digital signals without an attached conversion device. And those who want to be the first on their block to go digital could be in for some sticker shock

Initially, the digital sets will cost up to $5,000, higher than previous estimates of $2,000, said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association. VCRs capable of picking up digital signals will retail for more than $500, Shapiro says.


Between now and 2006, TV stations will be able to broadcast in both digital or analog formats, which means that current TVs will work until then. So there's no reason to panic.

But after 2006, the analog format will be abandoned by broadcasters. At that point, analog TVs still won't be useless -- they can be equipped with a conversion device, costing an estimated $200 to $300, that will enable them to get sound and pictures. But the technical advantages of the digital format will be lost in the process.

People who buy into the new technology now may also find that they have to disconnect their cable to use their digital sets. That's because only one cable company in the United States currently broadcasts using the digital format

The cable industry is not happy about having to spend perhaps billions of dollars to upgrade its technology -- particularly after the FCC decided to give broadcasters the new digital broadcast signals for free.

Prices for digital TV should come down

Critics of the FCC vote requiring an eventual transition to digital technology fear broadcasters will use the new channels to offer specialized pay services, instead of concentrating on improving the quality of free over-the-air television.

The prices of digital sets are expected to come down as the technology starts penetrating the market. Manufacturers estimate that up to 20 percent of all American households will have digital sets within six years.

And yet another advance is on the horizon -- high-definition television, which will make the picture even sharper. The FCC has agreed to let broadcasters decide when that technology should be implemented.

Correspondents Steve Young and Louise Schiavone contributed to this report.  

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