Pricey digital TV is next techno frontier
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
But get ready to pay for the privilege of life on the
technological frontier known as digital TV.
A L S O
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.
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
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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