With just a few months left before the first digital television stations are to go on the air, the picture is beginning to look a little fuzzy for the technology touted as television's future.
TV stations in several markets, including New York, Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco and Los Angeles, say they are encountering problems getting ready for the first wave of digital broadcasts, which are supposed to start Nov. 1. The problems -- ranging from difficulty in erecting transmission towers to international signal-interference issues -- threaten to make the debut of digital television a patchwork affair this fall.
Years in the making, digital television could transform the half-century-old "analog" system of TV broadcasting by enabling stations to transmit supersharp, wide-screen images to a new generation of TV sets.
In addition to airing high-definition images, digital technology also may allow TV stations to split their signals into multiple channels, greatly expanding viewer choices. After the first wave of two dozen stations debuts later this year, all 1,600 U.S. stations eventually will build new digital facilities and transmit over government-granted airwaves.
But huge questions remain, such as how many viewers will want to spend $7,000 for the first digital sets and what programs will be converted to digital and shown on the air.
Beyond these issues is a more-basic question: when viewers will be able to see digital television at all. For example, the only station in Chicago that had volunteered to be on the air this fall, NBC-owned WMAQ, told the government last week that it is still negotiating for a tower site and won't meet the deadline. That wipes out any hope for digital broadcasts in the nation's third-largest market until next May, at the earliest.
Officially, the Federal Communications Commission says it is pleased by the progress made by the 24 pioneering stations. "Digital television in the top 10 markets is on its way," said FCC Chairman William Kennard in a statement. "The FCC's digital build-out schedule is on track."
But station executives themselves are not quite so optimistic in private discussions:
In San Francisco, environmental groups have threatened to block modifications to an existing tower, which would delay three stations from going on the air (to beam a signal across a large metropolitan area, transmission towers need to be more than 1,500 feet above ground level). "The clock is ticking on us in San Francisco," said one broadcaster.
In Los Angeles and Detroit, six stations still are awaiting agreements among the United States, Mexico and Canada to avoid interference problems with border stations -- something Mr. Kennard calls "a serious concern." CBS, meanwhile, has said it can't get its tower up in time in Detroit, and has volunteered to outfit its station in Los Angeles as a substitute. But the company said its digital transmitter in Los Angeles needs more power, and it is still negotiating with the local utility to supply it.
In New York, the largest market in the nation, several stations are still negotiating with the city's port authority to put antennas on top of the World Trade Center. WCBS -- the only station formally committed to a Nov. 1 start -- acknowledged last week that it has had to accelerate work to reinforce its tower on top of the Empire State Building. This "complicated and hazardous work," according to CBS, involves 12-hour shifts by workers and coordination with other broadcasters to reduce their power.
"Broadcasters are demonstrating their full commitment to a speedy digital television rollout, despite needless legal and regulatory hurdles associated with tower sitings," said Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters.
Some broadcasters are urging the FCC to pass a "must-carry" rule that would guarantee digital broadcasts a place on cable.