WASHINGTON — IN a few years American consumers will get a chance to buy high-definition television (HDTV) sets with a picture so clear it resembles the movies.
It is far from clear, however, whether the expensive boxes will catch on quickly with United States buyers. In Japan a version of HDTV is already off to a rocky start; even after price cuts announced last week, sets sell for around $20,000.
The stakes are high, not only for consumer electronics manufacturers looking for a hot new product, but also for broadcasters, who must invest in new equipment if they want to offer HDTV programming.
"They're on the horns of a dilemma," says Dale Cripps, publisher of HDTV Newsletter. Broadcasters can't afford to ignore the potential of the new medium, but also can't afford investment in a new system if most viewers will still be tuning in to traditional broadcasts in the format known as NTSC (for National Television Systems Committee).
"The expenses [of HDTV] are so great and the returns in the beginning are so small that it becomes very difficult" for broadcasters to invest in the necessary equipment, says Michael Sherlock, NBC's president for operations and technical services.
If broadcasters fail to provide enough HDTV programming, receiver sales may never take off. A shortage of programming is one of reasons cited for HDTV's failure to catch on in Japan so far.
"Consumers ... will buy the sets after they see the programs are available," says Joseph Donahue, senior vice president for technology at Thomson Consumer Electronics, one the largest makers of television sets.
Zenith Electronics Corporation says its HDTV sets will cost $1,000 more than current receivers. But Mr. Cripps predicts that initial prices in the US will be as high as $6,000 to $10,000.
"You could say it's a technology success and a market failure" in the making, Cripps says. FCC's optimistic schedule
The Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the use of the airwaves, is counting on the technology being a market success. Since 1987, when broadcasters argued that part of the radio spectrum should be reserved for HDTV rather than licensed for mobile-communications uses, the FCC has been setting the stage for broadcasting to enter the high-definition era.
On April 9, the commission outlined a timetable under which HDTV would supplant the current NTSC television broadcasts. First, the FCC must set a standard for HDTV, a move expected during the latter half of 1993. Then TV stations will have two years to apply for airwave space to broadcast an HDTV channel, in addition to their NTSC channel. In another three years (1998), the stations would have to be up and running with HDTV broadcasts. Eventually, the FCC says, stations will have to give back the spectru m used for their NTSC channel, perhaps as early as 2008.
NBC's Sherlock says that the financial cost of starting HDTV will be daunting for local stations.
Stations could buy a new HDTV transmitter for about $2 million, enabling the transmission of "pass-through" HDTV programming from the big networks. To outfit a studio to produce local programming in high definition would cost another $12 to $15 million, he says. But even $2 million is more than a typical station spends on equipment in a year.
Many critics say it will likely be long after 2008 before HDTV has become so widespread that the FCC can take back the NTSC channels. In announcing the FCC plan, commissioner Ervin Duggan acknowledged that "full conversion ... is likely to take more than a decade," but he said that eventually broadcasters would surrender the NTSC channels.
Robert Siegenthaler, president of operations at Capital Cities/ ABC, notes that "between 1993 and 2008 there will be different FCC commissioners" who may alter the plan.
"We all have to be realistic, and there are huge questions as to whether our audiences will have an appetite for high-definition television," Sherlock says.
Despite the uncertainties surrounding HDTV, there is widespread agreement that NTSC broadcasting is outdated and needs improvement. When NTSC signals reach viewers' homes, interference often makes the resulting picture much worse than it was in the studio, a problem not found in the digital format that the FCC will likely choose for HDTV. Going digital also opens the way for increasing linkage of televisions and computers. Better reception likely
High-definition images will be fuller - built with more scan lines than NTSC. HDTV pictures will also have the wider shape used in theaters, better corresponding to the human field of vision than the squarish shape of NTSC.
Jerry Pearlman, Zenith Electronics Corporation's chairman, says the stunning clarity will create a fast-growing market. He told a National Association of Broadcasters meeting in Las Vegas last week: "It took color TV and VCRs six and seven years from first consumer sales to reach 3 percent saturation. We believe HDTV will be there in half the time."
Mr. Pearlman urged broadcasters to get HDTV programming off to a quick start. "If you don't start early, cable and DBS [direct broadcast satellite] may pass you by," he warned.
One advantage for cable TV companies is the avoided cost of new transmitters. "We can introduce HDTV probably at less cost than broadcasters," says Dick Green, president of the Cable Television Laboratories, an industry research organization in Boulder, Colo.
Whoever gets into the new medium will likely begin by airing a lot of movies that come ready-made in the wide-screen format, predicts Richard Solomon, an HDTV expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The networks will probably make most of their prime-time shows available in high definition, too.
Perhaps the biggest initial market for HDTV will not be for entertainment, but in health care and other professional applications, Mr. Solomon says.