Originally created 02/11/99

High-definition anxiety



Let's get this much clear: Nobody really expects the average, non-Ferrari-owning consumer to buy a digital television set anytime soon. Not six weeks from now, not six months -- well, maybe in six years. So why the fuss now?

Picture this: Digital TV will offer over-the-air reception free of ghosting and fuzziness; even its lowest-resolution version will surpass the best of today's television. It will allow broadcasters to deliver new combinations of channels and "datacasting" in the bandwidth now used to dump one analog channel into our sets. In 2006, it's supposed to replace analog TV completely (but don't take that date too seriously).

But most of all, it's supposed to give us high-definition television, or HDTV. Digital TV encompasses 18 different standards for resolution and format, but the one everybody talks about is HDTV -- "1080i" in digi-jargon, for its 1,080 interlaced lines of resolution, which more than double what analog TV delivers. (The HDTV standard also allows for a slightly lower-resolution, 780-line transmission.) This comes in the same 16-by-9 proportions as a movie theater's screen, accompanied by six-channel Dolby Digital surround sound, which itself wasn't even an option on home-theater systems a few years ago.

How utterly fabulous is HDTV to behold? Put it this way: It's about seeing the expression on a quarterback's face -- reflected in another player's helmet. Or watching a car chase and being able to see the parking sticker on each windshield.

The first digital sets have been almost exclusively HDTVs, usually behemoths with screens 50 or more inches across, measured diagonally. At prices of $6,000 and up, these are not cheap. (For instance, a 65-inch, $8,999 Toshiba will run you almost $720 per square foot of screen real estate; by way of comparison, the priciest office building sold in the District of Columbia last year went for $391 a square foot.)

Why these obscenely large screens? Basically, that's where the money is. "The only compelling thing about digital TV (now) is HDTV," said John Strobel, Philips' vice president of marketing for digital TV. "The earliest people who are going to buy high-definition TV are the home-theater enthusiasts." Shrink the screen too much, and the finer resolution of HDTV gets lost -- just like a 19-inch screen appears much sharper than a wall-sized projection screen when both are viewed at the same distance.

Behind those vast expanses of glass lurk some hideously expensive optics, which aren't likely to get cheaper the way computer chips do.

"Don't expect prices on any digital television set to drop under $3,000 in the next three years," declares Jim Palumbo, Sony's vice president of consumer electronics. "It's not going to happen."

Is anybody actually buying this stuff? "Heck yeah! We have literally sold as many as we've been able to get," says Myer-Emco vice president Gary Yacoubian. But he adds, "I think elves are making them right now. We are literally getting dribs and drabs; we'll order 20 and get two."

In most cases, Yacoubian reports, customers are buying only monitors -- that is, screens without the tunerdecoder circuitry needed to receive a digital signal. (For instance, the cheapest HDTV gear we've seen is a $3,000, 36-inch Hitachi monitor.) A high-definition monitor can be used now as a very, very good analog screen, while a digital tuner is mostly useless, and in any case, the industry only recently reached tentative agreement on a standard for connecting tuners to other video gear.

Because of all these cost and size factors -- and because ultra-big screen TVs make up a tiny share of today's market -- high-intensity high-definition sales seem unlikely. "Digital TV problems are solvable, but high-definition problems aren't," market analysts Forrester Research stated in a November report that concluded HDTV would be little more than a sports-bar accessory.

Instead, many observers expect the heart of the digital TV market to be standard-definition, "480p" models. These will handle 480 lines of resolution displayed progressively -- that is, the screen redraws every line from 24 to 60 times a second, the way a computer monitor does, instead of redrawing every other line as current TVs do. This is still a noticeable improvement -- it's about as big a jump in quality as digital video disc is over an analog cable signal. And on a 25- or 27-inch screen, viewed at standard couch distance, it may be all the resolution you'll need.

Another option is buying a digital converter box (which should start at $500 and in a year or two drop below $200) for your existing set. But right now, you'd only be able to plug that box into a TV antenna or a satellite dish. Cable companies have stayed aloof from digital TV, especially HDTV; they already have to carry stations' analog signals and aren't excited about carrying an HDTV version of each of those if it means sacrificing bandwidth that could be more profitably employed to send out several different channels. At the moment, for instance, cable giant TCI's digital strategy is to give its HDTV-owning customers antennas for over-the-air reception.

Those airwave transmissions are the one guaranteed way to get a digital TV signal now -- if you have the right antenna and you're in a decent reception area. "Anywhere someone gets a good analog signal, they will get an excellent DTV signal," says Ralph Justus, director of engineering for the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association.

As for satellite television, both DirecTV and Dish Network plan HDTV broadcasts, starting with a high-res version of HBO, but you'll need a new decoder to handle the high-definition signal. DirecTV also requires a separate, larger dish to receive that transmission. (DirecTV's service should start March 6, while Dish Network's won't commence until mid to late summer.)

But even if you subscribe to both satellite services and live next door to a TV-transmission tower, you still won't have that much to watch in HDTV for a while. And that's the biggest reason to relax about digital television -- why buy the set if there's nothing on it but the same old TV? Not to mention that gargantuan-screen, high-resolution pictures and bone-rattling surround sound are only a $7 ticket away at the nearest movie theater.

That doesn't mean the industry won't keep the issue in your face anyway. "There's no way a consumer can put this out of sight, out of mind," Palumbo says. "It's like your tax bill."