Tech Standards May Change, but DTVs Are On the Way

The changeover from analog to digital television was once envisioned as a smooth, peaceful process. The reality has proven to be rocky and contentious. The broadcast standard has been debated continuously since the beginning, continuing as the first generations of digital television transmitters and receivers went on the market. In March of this year, the Advanced Television Systems Committee, under pressure from Sinclair Broadcasting Group and others, began a review of the technical standards that it recommended in 1996, with the possibility of changing the modulation scheme for DTV. If the ATSC finds that a change is needed, the FCC could require its implementation. Any changes could adversely affect the desirability of products now on the market or in production.

Consumer electronics manufacturers apparently feel the threat of a change is minimal. New DTV products—tuners, receivers, and displays—are coming from at least eight major manufacturers in the next few months at lower-than-ever prices—a development that should help allay broadcasters' misgivings about the lack of a market for digital programming. "We have a responsibility to make sure consumers are not left high and dry," said Dave Arland, spokesman for Thomson Multimedia SA, parent company of RCA and ProScan. RCA currently has a corner on affordable DTVs.

Manufacturers have said that they believe broadcasters are attempting to hold back the changeover to digital broadcasting, originally mandated by the Federal Communications Commission for completion by 2006. Bob Perry, US marketing chief for Mitsubishi Electric digital products, dismissed the controversy as "just a political football." Mitsubishi is another company with a new line of digital television products being readied for consumers. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) has and will oppose any change in technical standards, organization spokepeople have stated.

Broadcasters have shrugged off their responsibility to provide programming, say both FCC officials and CEA executives. Broadcasters have been pointing their fingers at the cable industry and raising questions about copyright protection while scrambling to find other ways to use their 6MHz of free broadcast spectrum. Wireless communication services and various types of "datacasting" have become extremely popular since the digital spectrum giveaway, and broadcasters have been making behind-the-scenes deals to leverage the new developments into quick cash. Manufacturers are going ahead with their plans to make digital sets available at increasingly affordable prices, which at the very least will accelerate the popularity of DVD as a video source if broadcasters cannot get their programming act together. The enormous success of DVD is positive proof of consumers' eagerness for quality video, manufacturers say.