Originally created 02/11/99

HDTV displays, yes, but no real sales yet

High-definition television sets are on display at more than 100 stores throughout the country. Visually, the stores have an easy sell: The crisper, clearer pictures always draw a crowd.

But what those HDTVs haven't drawn much of is actual programming. Sure, that PBS documentary is pretty interesting, but if I'm plunking down five or six grand, I'd kind of like to see other shows too.

With digital TV, patience, it seems, has its rewards. But it's going to take a lot of it. Forget comparisons of the digital TV transition to the move several decades ago from black and white to color television; Fox Television's Thomas Tyrer said it's more dramatic than that: "We see it as akin to the movement from radio to television."

So the flow of movies and original programs likely will continue at a trickle until mid-year, when the networks have digitally-enabled their affiliates in the top 10 markets across the country. And any digital floodgate probably won't open until November, when the top 30 markets -- half of the nation's viewing audience -- are upgraded.

Until then, here's what you're missing:

Washington public television station WETA presented the first live HDTV broadcast of a major-league baseball game in September 1997 -- shown only at the National Press Club in Washington. Since November, WETA has been transmitting a digital signal; it's produced four programs in HDTV.

"Impressionists on the Seine" celebrates the works of Renoir, Manet, Monet and other painters. "The Kennedy Center Presents: A Tribute to Muddy Waters" brings a 1997 Kennedy Center concert to life; "The Legacy of Generations" and "Woven by the Grandmothers" focus on Native American culture.

Looking forward, "Washington, the Beautiful" debuts on Feb. 16. Also coming up in high-definition: "Over Ireland" in March; "American Experience: Down the Colorado" and "Fiesta in the Sky" in April; "Great Performances: A Tribute to Duke Ellington" in May; and a Seattle Symphony show, featuring soprano Jessye Norman, in June.

CBS has produced a variety of high-def programs, starting with the launch of the space shuttle Discovery in October. There also have been four NFL games -- using separate cameras and announcing crews -- as well as an episode of "Chicago Hope" and the films "The Bodyguard" and "The Shawshank Redemption."

ABC, with a dozen digital-ready affiliates since last November, has aired seven Wonderful World of Disney films and five other releases in HD.

For those wanting a better-defined chin on their late-night host, NBC is building an HDTV facility for "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno"; weeknight broadcasts are scheduled to begin in the spring. The Peacock Network also has two blockbuster films in the HDTV pipeline: "Men in Black" and "Titanic." No dates have been set.

Fox, currently transmitting digitally in San Francisco, Detroit, Philadelphia and Dallas, promises high-def programming by May, but it's using the 720-line progressive-display format instead of the 1080-line interlaced ("1080i") format favored by other stations. Count on feature films to be the first offerings. Network-lets UPN and WB have made no announcements about digital TV yet.

Among the cable networks, the first small steps into the high-definition world came from a relative babe in the woods. Home & Garden Television, in conjunction with KTLA and satellite-broadcaster DirecTV, presented the 110th Rose Parade live in high-definition television on Jan. 1.

On March 6, Home Box Office begins transmitting East and West Coast high-definition feeds. At the start, only theatrical motion pictures and original movies that are new to HBO will be in HDTV. (Cable systems have not yet made plans to carry high-definition programming, so this will be limited to satellite-TV customers.) The network estimates that by year's end 60 percent of its movies will be in high definition -- most up-converted to 1080i.

DirecTV also plans for high-definition pay-per-view movies by the end of the first quarter.

Want more programming? You'll just have to tune in tomorrow. Or the day after. Or the day after that. ...


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