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The Big Picture on Digital TV: It's Still Fuzzy

2051 Views 1 Reply 2 Participants Last post by  DarrellP
SOURCE UNKNOWN.........:shrug: Sent to me via email.

It was a torrid 111 degrees in Woodland Hills, Calif., the Sunday before Labor Day, and the action at the local air-conditioned electronics store was hot. Scores of people were admiring the large wide-screen high-definition digital television sets, and at least one family was ready to buy.

Jeff Potts, a local contractor, was about to write a check for more than $2,000 for an HDTV set. But after 30 minutes of discussion he abruptly left, exasperated and empty-handed.

"I want to step up to HDTV, but they're telling me I have to have service plans, extended warranties and special expensive cables to make this work," he said. "This is all too much."

Mr. Potts believed he could watch HDTV by using a satellite dish, but he would not have learned how from the confused salesman. Among other things, the salesman told shoppers that a standard DirecTV dish and digital decoder box were all that was needed to receive HDTV pictures, that HDTV programming was not available with an outdoor antenna or from the Dish Network and that the government had mandated that every television sold be an HDTV model. All of those statements were inaccurate.

But the lack of knowledge among sales personnel is not the only thing hampering the government-mandated switch from analog to digital television, a transition that most experts agree is now far behind schedule.

In 1998, the Federal Communications Commission stated that "digital television promises to be one of the most significant developments in television technology since the advent of color television." Digital TV would offer extraordinarily sharp wide-screen images with surround sound and would allow for additional channels and other enhanced services.

By 2006, the government hoped, the switch to digital would be almost complete, and the current analog spectrum would be reclaimed and auctioned off for billions of dollars to telecommunications companies. Consumers would be enjoying the best-quality television service the world had ever seen.

Almost four years after the F.C.C.'s rosy prediction, the transition to digital broadcasting continues at a snail's pace. Despite a deadline of May 1, 2002, for the nation's 1,309 local commercial broadcast stations to begin digital transmission, only 393 have started doing so, the National Association of Broadcasters says. (Another 75 public stations are broadcasting digitally as well.) The rest of the commercial stations have received hardship waivers related to cost, delivery delays or, in the case of New York, the destruction of digital transmitters on Sept. 11 last year.

On the consumer front, the vast majority of the 25 million television sets sold annually are still equipped to handle analog signals only. Just a handful of cable systems currently offer broadcasters' digital and high-definition feeds. Set-top digital decoder boxes, which are required for viewing a digital signal via an antenna or satellite dish, are hard to find and cost more than most standard television sets.

The F.C.C. acknowledges that the transition has been rough. "We're midstream in a boat that some say has leaks," said W. Kenneth Ferree, chief of the commission's media bureau. "We're patching the leaks and trying to get to shore."

Some progress has been made. The Consumer Electronics Association expects just over two million digital-ready sets (which require a decoder to use digital transmissions), fully digital television sets and tuners to be sold this year, and four million in 2003. The amount of HDTV programming has increased, and the cable TV industry seems to be on the verge of offering some HDTV programming in its largest systems.

Yet according to a recent survey by the Cable and Telecommunications Association for Marketing, 32 percent of adults have never heard of HDTV, 56 percent have no idea how to go about receiving it, and 81 percent are unlikely to buy an HDTV set in the next 12 months.

The Technology

In 1996 the government decreed that the nation's broadcasting standard, in use for more than 50 years, would switch to a digital method of transmission. All of the nation's commercial and nonprofit broadcasters would need to purchase digital transmission equipment and broadcast both digital and analog signals for a while until the government decided that their analog feeds would be shut down.

Digital technology meant that broadcasters would be able to transmit a high-definition picture, several standard-definition ones, or enhanced programming like data, news or program guides. Whether standard or high-definition, the digital format would ensure that all transmissions would be picture-perfect, free of ghosts and snow.

The government only decreed a switch to digital broadcasting; it never ordered broadcasters to transmit HDTV signals specifically, and stations are free never to do so. And the switch to digital was mandated for broadcasters only. Digital cable and digital satellite services like DirecTV use compression technologies on conventional analog signals to make more signals available, but do not necessarily improve the quality of the pictures. Subscribing to either does not guarantee you will also receive broadcasters' digital feeds if and when they become available.

But when broadcasters transmit signals digitally over the air, they are vastly improved. With a digital broadcast, the picture is either perfect or, if you are too far away from the signal, nonexistent. Live in a fringe area, and the picture may pop in and out.

"With digital broadcast television, the choice of a lousy picture no longer exists," said Mark Schubin, an industry consultant in New York.

Instead, it's all or nothing. In reception tests from the 64th floor of a New York skyscraper using a rabbit-ears antenna, Mr. Schubin and his colleagues were able to pick up only three of the nine digital stations in the New York area that were then broadcasting.

Such spotty reception is one reason that the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Association of Broadcasters are urging that cable systems be required to carry digital broadcast feeds. These groups also want a rule that digital televisions must be "cable ready" - able to receive digital broadcast signals via cable without the need for a set-top box.

"When the digital television transition started, we thought it would be driven by broadcasters," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association. "What were we thinking? Cable and satellite is where the action is."

According to the F.C.C., more than 80 percent of American households subscribe to cable or satellite service. Under a voluntary agreement originated by the agency, 10 of the top cable television companies have pledged to offer at least five channels of HDTV or other digital programming in their markets with the greatest channel capacity by the beginning of next year.

But to accommodate those people who are not cable or satellite subscribers, the agency ruled last month that by July 2007 all new television sets 13 inches and larger must come equipped with a tuner for digital over-the-air broadcasts. (Sets that are 36 inches or larger must have them by July 2004.) Depending on who is doing the estimating, the addition of a digital tuner will add $16 to $250 to the price of a set.

The Programming

Consumers with digital sets have a significant amount of HDTV programming to choose from. ABC and CBS now offer most of their prime-time entertainment programming in HDTV. (Of course, it is only available in areas where the local affiliate broadcasts digitally. And stations that have gone digital still broadcast analog signals as well, meaning that the letter box format and other features of many HDTV broadcasts do not show up on older, analog television sets.)

This month CBS broadcast the United States Open tennis tournament in high definition. NBC says its HDTV offerings will expand this fall, possibly including "Ed" and "Crossing Jordan." The WB Network will offer five weekly hours of HDTV programming, including "Smallville" and "Family Affair."

So far Fox has shunned HDTV, instead using the wide-screen Enhanced Definition digital format, which the company says is perceived to be as sharp as HDTV by most viewers. The network offers two-thirds of its nonsports programming with this system. Beginning this month, Fox will also offer wide-screen Enhanced Definition presentations of football and Nascar racing each weekend to its digital viewers.

Despite the increase in programming, there is no guarantee that broadcast networks will be able to get their HDTV offerings in front of cable subscribers' eyes, as cable companies could decide to provide HDTV programming furnished mainly by their industry. Both HBO and Showtime offer HDTV programming on separate channels available to DirecTV and Dish Network users. In May the Discovery Channel began Discovery HD Theater, a high-definition channel available only to Dish Network customers and one cable system.

The HDTV network HDNet, which was started by Mark Cuban, the Internet entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, provides a mix of sports, general entertainment and news programs. It is available only to DirecTV subscribers. Mr. Cuban plans to add three more HDTV channels to the network in coming months.

This year HDNet showed the Winter Olympics, but Mr. Cuban agreed to delay the broadcasts 24 hours. "NBC needed to protect their affiliates, who were worried that HDTV's great picture quality would draw viewers away," he said. "That really says it all."

The Equipment

For many consumers, the question has not been whether they want HDTV but whether they can afford it. Prices are dropping from the stratosphere. A 34-inch wide-screen Sony HDTV cost $9,000 when introduced in 1998. Sony has a new 34-inch model that will have a street price approaching $2,500, although this model is only "digital ready" and does not include the digital decoder, which costs from $550 to $1,000.

RCA's 61-inch wide-screen full-digital projection television cost $8,000 in 1999. A successor to be introduced this fall has a list price of $3,799. Warehouse discount stores regularly sell digital-ready picture-tube sets with the standard television aspect ratio of 4:3 for $1,000, and small 16:9, or wide-screen, projection versions for $1,500.

With the high price of digital set-top boxes and the shortage of HDTV programming, it is the popularity of DVD's that has fueled the growth of digital-ready wide-screen sets. "DVD's have definitely driven the market," said Bob Nocera, vice president for digital television marketing at Philips Consumer Electronics. "In 18 to 24 months, we'll stop selling analog projection TV's."

Other manufacturers have also widened their digital and wide-screen television offerings. This year, 20 of the 35 Sony models offered in the United States will be HDTV-capable or include an HDTV decoder, said Rick Clancy, a Sony spokesman. RCA markets nine digital televisions under its Scenium rubric, all of them wide-screen models.

Digital television sets may also affect the ability of consumers to record programs. The opportunity to copy digital signals with no loss of quality worries Hollywood studios, who argue that piracy will increase if such copying is allowed. While antipiracy technology standards have not been set, many of the newest digital televisions come with two types of plugs that can be used to restrict or prevent recording.

Using connectors called DVI and IEEE 1394 (or FireWire), consumers could, at the discretion of the program's licenser, be prevented from making any copies of a digital television program, or permitted to make only a limited number - or keep them just for a specified time.

Antipiracy technology is still an issue that concerns mostly program providers rather than consumers. And while no one knows what mix of standard and high-definition programming will eventually be offered via digital television, it will be the superior picture quality of HDTV that will drive the digital transition in the short run.

"HDTV doesn't sink in until you see it," said Dave Arland, director of government relations for Thomson Consumer Electronics. "It's like TV in the 1940's and color TV in the 60's; once the rich guy down the block gets it, so will you."
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You think that's bad, you have to read this thread about replacing Plasma gas, it's one of the funniest threads I've read in a long time.
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