HDTV Rollout: Broadcasters Ahead of FCC Timetable

High-Definition Television will make its broadcast debut next month, and television stations in most parts of the country will participate. The National Association of Broadcasters announced last week that 42 stations are good to go for the November 1 launch of 21st-century television. The first HDTV stations include the original 26 volunteers in the 10 largest US markets, as mandated by a schedule agreed to by the NAB and the Federal Communications Commission; and an additional 16 that have completed their equipment upgrades ahead of time.

The announcement that so many stations had come in ahead of schedule was a cause for celebration at NAB headquarters. "The message is as clear as HDTV itself: Broadcasters are delivering on their digital pledge, and, in fact, exceeding it," said NAB President/CEO Eddie Fritts, in part responding to rumors that HDTV's debut would be delayed by technical difficulties and construction slowdowns among some of his organization's member stations.

The most populous areas of the country---the northeast, southeast, and west coast---will be the first to experience the new format. With five stations ready for HDTV transmission, San Francisco will lead the nation as the city with the largest number of stations so equipped---the city's KBHK was a late addition to the list. The SF Bay Area's many hills and valleys will present rigorous field tests for the new technology. Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles will each have four HDTV stations; Seattle and Dallas have announced three each.

"We can say unequivocally that broadcasters are more than doing our part to make the digital era a reality," said NAB executive vice president for television Chuck Sherman. He then passed the HDTV baton to consumer electronics manufacturers: "Many pieces have to fall into place before the promise of 35mm-quality pictures and CD-quality sound becomes a reality for families across the country."

One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle is when affordable HDTV receivers will become available. The few presently on the market are priced out of reach of all but the most affluent consumers. HDTV's rollout will be primarily a news event, seen by few but read about by many. Electronics retailers are still advertising and selling NTSC "legacy video" receivers, and, during the transition to full-time HDTV (estimated by the FCC to be about eight years), late adopters will see hi-def signals downconverted to NTSC through set-top converter boxes. HDTV seen this way will offer DVD quality---a huge step up from VHS tape, but still a step down from true high-definition.

When the build-out for fully digital TV is completed, the broadcasting industry will have spent $16 billion, according to the NAB. The changeover is a leap of faith for the industry, whose executives admit that they don't know if the added costs will result in commensurate increases in revenue. One thing that is abundantly clear to those who have seen HDTV exhibits is that the new technology will make TV sports and movies more compelling than ever.

Here is the NAB's official list of member stations who are HDTV-ready:

Atlanta: WSB, WXIA
Boston: WCVB, WMUR (Manchester, NH)
Charlotte, NC: WBTV
Cincinnati: WLWT
Columbus, OH: WBNS
Detroit: WXYZ, WJBK
Harrisburg, PA: WITF
Honolulu: KITV
Houston: KHOU
Indianapolis: WTHR
Madison, WI: WKOW
Miami: WLRN
Milwaukee: WMVS
New York: WCBS
Philadelphia: WPVI, KYW, WTXF, KCAU
Portland, OR: KOPB
Raleigh, NC: WRAL
San Francisco: KGO, KPIX, KRON, KTVU, KBHK
Washington, DC: WJLA, WUSA, WRC, WETA