The Path Ahead for HDTV and DTV

Predicted by an industry announcement last week: Widescreen digital televisions with theater-quality pictures and sound are on track for delivery by the end of the year. They'll be backed with new high-definition broadcasts in the fall, according to Sarnoff Corporation.

And just as it was at the recent CES in Las Vegas, digital high-definition television (HDTV) is shaping up as the hot topic for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention set for April 6-9, also in Las Vegas.

Sarnoff predicts a strong product introduction, with many different HDTV models to choose from. The company was a member of the Grand Alliance that originally developed the new US HDTV system, and also helped pioneer the original black-and-white TV system in 1942 and color TV in 1946.

"The US is going to have the best TV system in the world," said Glenn Reitmeier, Sarnoff Vice President for High Definition and Multimedia Systems. "And we will be the first country in the world with digital HDTV."

The schedule for introducing digital television (DTV), including HDTV, was locked in place by the FCC almost a year ago. DirecTV subscribers in most areas of the country will have access to two channels of HDTV programming this Fall. For regular (terrestrial) broadcasters, the FCC has mandated a strict four-year schedule for introducing DTV:

Nov. 1998First commercial DTV stations go on the air.
May 1, 1999The four major networks each build one DTV station in the nation's top 10 markets, for a total of 40 stations providing DTV broadcasts to 30% of the population.
Nov. 1, 1999The networks reach 50% of the population with one DTV station each in the top 30 markets (120 stations total).
May 1, 2002All commercial stations must provide DTV service.
May 1, 2003All stations, public and commercial, must provide DTV service.

The DTV standard allows broadcasters to use each digital channel for one HDTV program, or up to four programs in standard definition (SDTV). Many experts predict they will do both: broadcast multiple SDTV programs during the day, for example, and run HDTV for prime time and sports shows.

Manufacturers have already begun showing retailers digital sets in various price ranges. Early models could be expensive. The two main categories:

• Full large-screen HDTV sets with movie-like clarity and CD-quality surround sound. Models include front-projection, rear-projection, and picture-tube models. Early price estimates range from $5000 up, though this is expected to drop steadily as production increases.

• Standard-definition TV (SDTV) sets priced at around $2000 and up, about the same as current high-end TVs. These sets will offer such DTV features as widescreen video and surround sound, but will display all programs (including HDTV) at standard resolution, about the same as today's best satellite pictures.

If your current TV works fine, don't worry. Standard analog broadcasts will still be available at least until the end of 2006---and the FCC may extend that deadline under certain specified conditions. Even when analog disappears, an older set can receive digital and HDTV through an adapter, similar to a cable converter box, which may eventually sell for about $200. The picture won't be widescreen, and it won't match the detail and clarity of true HDTV, but it will at least be free of snow and ghosts. By the time older analog sets finally stop working, prices on the new SDTV and HDTV sets should be more affordable.

According to Reitmeier, people who see HDTV in one of the demonstrations never ask how much it costs---they ask when they can get it. "Until you see it, you don't understand it," he said. "I predict that, once the public gets a taste of HDTV, it will replace analog television the way the compact disc replaced the LP record. The difference is that spectacular."