WASHINGTON - The government is prepared to approve a plan that could bring futuristic, cinema-quality television to American viewers by 1998.
The standards the Federal Communications Commission is expected to endorse this week will be used by the nation's TV stations to deliver digital TV signals and CD-quality sound, and even sharper pictures called high definition.
For people who buy new, wider-screen digital TV sets, ABC, CBS and NBC say they'll be broadcasting some programs in the crystal clear digital format by 1998.
The proposal the FCC will approve embodies a delicate compromise made last month among the broadcast, computer and consumer electronics industries, which were in conflict over key aspects of the proposed system for nearly a year.
While the FCC's action is a regulatory formality, it does mark a crucial step in the nine-year journey to implement higher-quality digital television in the United States.
Before broadcasters can provide digital TV, however, the FCC must take two other steps: It must make slices of the public airwaves available for the service; and it must issue new digital TV licenses.
Both steps are expected to be finalized next year.
Eventually, manufacturers will use the FCC's standards as a framework to build new digital TV sets and so-called digital PC-TVs, computers that can receive the new higher-quality TV signals.
Digital TV sets, which will be more rectangular in shape, could be sold at prices at least $1,000 to $1,500 above the cost of sets today.
Because digital TV technology would allow broadcasters to squeeze more video and data into their existing channel space, viewers also could receive new services from stations for free or for a monthly fee. Those services could include additional TV channels of, say, just sports, or movies, or stock quotes or other data services transmitted to home computers.
"I'm hopeful that the consumer will not only benefit because they'll be given more choices ... but that we also may see an accelerated introduction of services through the broadcast regime beyond those of traditional video delivery," said Craig Mundie, senior vice president at Microsoft, the computer software manufacturer.
For a period of time, broadcasters will simultaneously transmit programs using two TV channels, one for programs in the existing analog format and the other in the new digital format. This way, the nation's 220 million TV sets won't be immediately rendered useless.
The FCC's plan sets out many technical specifications, but lets the marketplace decide the format for displaying images on TV and computer screens as well as the screen size and shape. The agreement marked a victory for computer makers and the Hollywood film industry, but broadcasters had said they got much of what they wanted too.
"Over the next couple of years, the receivers that will display digital TV will be invented, will be manufactured, will be brought to the shelves," said FCC Chairman Reed Hundt. "They will offer choices and opportunities that wouldn't have happened if we had picked just one kind of receiver."
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