LAS VEGAS — This is the year that digital high-definition television - known as HDTV - goes live.
Long promised as the next-generation TV, the sets are getting their first public showing here at the Winter Consumer Electronics Show. With super-sharp pictures and crisp sound, the first high-definition sets should hit American store shelves in late fall. That's when broadcasters will begin airing some of their fare in an HDTV format.
The arrival of HDTV marks the first step in a digital upheaval that will remake the television industry. But Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass., research firm, predicts HDTV won't reach 1 million households until 2000. Even manufacturers, who began showing their wares Thursday, say it will take a decade to complete the digital transformation of TV.
"It's the year to become aware of it," says Jeff Cove, who heads Panasonic's consumer television division in Secaucus, N.J. "But as with any new product, you tend to walk before you run.... Part of our job is to bring things to the market and see the reaction" from consumers.
Consumers undoubtedly will like what they see, especially on large-screen TVs. Gone is the graininess commonly seen on today's big-projection televisions. The picture is also much brighter.
At the electronics show, manufacturers demonstrated live HDTV feeds from two local stations that were close to movie-quality. Broadcasts of a skating competition showed such fine details as strands of hair flowing freely as the camera zoomed in on the skaters.
The secret: the new screens deliver at least 1080 lines of resolution, more than twice the number of lines in today's televisions.
All I want for Christmas...
At least 14 companies, including all the major TV manufacturers, are working on HDTV technology. Several plan to offer sets in time for Christmas 1998. The federal government's television regulator, the Federal Communication Commission, is requiring broadcasters to begin providing at least limited HDTV programming by late fall. Under the government's scheme, broadcasters would air dual versions of their programming - one channel for today's sets, another for HDTV - until most consumers had made the transition to digital.
Cable TV programmers are also moving to HDTV. Home Box Office and Turner Broadcasting have said they will offer HDTV programming.
But much confusion still surrounds the technology. Broadcasters haven't decided whether they'll give consumers one high-quality HDTV channel or several lower-quality channels, known as standard definition TV, or SDTV. SDTV is roughly the picture-quality that can be seen today on satellite TV systems.
These unresolved issues are forcing manufacturers to build machines that can display all 18 formats that the government standards allow. "SDTV is the real dark horse," confides one highly placed source at a major consumer-electronics company. Some executives are keeping mum about exactly what part of the digital TV - DTV - world they'll release first.
"While DTV is indeed the future, it will take time for the future to be fully realized," says John Briesch, head of the consumer audio/video group at Sony Electronics in Park Ridge, N.J.
Thomson Consumer Electronics has partnered with Hitachi to create a huge 61-inch, rear-projection HDTV due out this fall. Pricing isn't announced yet, but James Meyer, Thomson's chief operating officer, estimates the cost would be around $7,000. He also expects consumers will buy between 20,000 and 100,000 HDTVs in the first full year of sales.
Programs arrive by fall
When the Thomson-Hitachi sets hit stores this fall, DirecTV will begin offering two channels of HDTV programming as part of its 200-channel offering.
While the federal government has pressured broadcasters to offer HDTV in the 10 largest US cities by Nov. 1, DirecTV's offering will go nationwide instantaneously, because it is beamed by satellite to subscribers with 18-inch satellite dishes. And, like all other small-dish satellite broadcasters, DirecTV already broadcasts all its programming in standard digital format.
"This is for the consumer-electronic industry the dream come true," says Eddy Hartenstein, DirecTV's president. He expects the arrival of HDTV sets will bring an extra 50,000 to 100,000 customers to the 1 million-plus a year it is already signing up.
But if history is any guide, current sets are years away from obsolescence. And with the new sets costing $6,000 to $8,000, many consumers may wait till the price starts to drop.