HDTV: All Dressed Up with Nowhere to Go?

Home-theater fans are excited by HDTV, and the first display products are hitting the shelves right now. But how long will it be before high-definition signals become common as a broadcast medium? The answer to this question involves not only the television to receive the signal, but the entire broadcast chain, from camera to transmitter.

A recent report from Stanford Resources Inc., a market-research firm specializing in the global electronic-display industry, concludes that conversion of the equipment for production, transmission, and reception of high-definition broadcast signals will be a long, costly, and complicated process. According to the report, broadcasters have not yet decided how much high-definition programming to transmit, and televisions that can receive all possible formats will be expensive.

The first edition of the report, entitled Television Systems, predicts that the worldwide market for color televisions will be 125 million units in 1998, a market valued at $59 billion. The average annual growth rate of unit shipments will be 4% from 1998 to 2004, and shipments will reach 155 million units in 2004. Market value will grow by 5% per year during the period, reaching a total of $80 billion in 2004.

Direct-view CRT televisions will dominate the market throughout the forecast period (1998-2004). Projection televisions are the second-largest part of the market. Plasma televisions are just coming onto the market in 1998, but their sales will grow rapidly, reaching 1.1 million units in 2004, representing a value of $3.2 billion.

However, the report also states that the growth of the market for HDTV sets will be slow throughout the 1998-2004 period, when early adopters and video enthusiasts will make up the majority of purchasers. HDTV sets will cost 10 to 20 times as much as conventional televisions, and availability of high-definition programming will be limited over the next few years, so other features, such as widescreen display and digital sound, will be important purchase factors.

According to Stanford Resources' Director of Market Analysis Paul Semenza, "Widescreen television has become widely adopted in Japan, accounting for half of all CRT-based televisions sold in 1998, and it's starting to grow in Europe, with 6.4% of 1998 CRT televisions sold in the widescreen format. But in North America and the rest of the world, sales of widescreen sets are nearly zero.

"By the year 2004," Semenza continues, "widescreen CRT-based television sales in Japan will level off, with HDTV reaching nearly 10% of CRT-based television sales. In Europe, widescreen sales will grow to 21.5% of CRT television sales, but HDTV sales will remain below 2%. HDTV sets will account for 2% of CRT televisions in North America in 2004, but otherwise there will be no significant sales of widescreen sets. The CRT television market for the rest of the world will remain almost exclusively in the conventional format."