HDTV Year in Review

First it was shark attacks and the Gary Condit debacle, and then came September 11. The year 2001 wasn't a great one overall, but it was pretty good for high-definition television (HDTV), which continues to make steady advances despite the drooping economy.

Acting on a mandate from Congress, broadcast stations started making the change from the old analog NTSC system to a new digital TV standard in November 1998. During the first two years of the transition, progress was snail-like. The early digital sets were prohibitively expensive, technical uncertainties surrounded the transmission standard, and broadcasters - with the notable exception of CBS - were reluctant to commit to anything beyond a spotty schedule of high-def programming. But things turned around enough on nearly all fronts in 2001 to suggest that the digital TV transition is finally on track.

The most obvious sign of the turnaround has been the wide variety of options for those buying an HDTV set. This past year saw the introduction of rear-projection high-def sets selling for less than $2,000 and integrated HDTVs with FireWire (a.k.a. IEEE 1394) ports for connecting a digital VCR and future devices like FireWire-equipped cable boxes and satellite tuners. It also saw new high-def channels pop up on satellite and an increased commitment to high-def programming from ABC, PBS, and NBC. The one area where HDTV didn't make any appreciable progress is cable. And with two-thirds of U.S. households hooked up to the various cable systems, the lack of action on that front remains a serious problem.

With all that in mind, let's take a quick trip through the year's HDTV highlights.