Hi-Def TV's Arrival - A Very Blurry Image

Megamedia combines are locked in a Darwinian struggle to dominate high-definition television (HDTV), or "hi-def." The first generation of digital, hi-def television sets and early programs to feed them begin arriving shortly. With much hoopla, companies will promise us the sharpest television images ever seen.

But the delivery is premature. What looms is less a sweeping communications revolution than a creeping free-for-all. A leading consumer electronics expert, Rich Warren, writes that "we had years of planning for industry and government to unite around a single coherent approach. What we wind up with is an unbelievable mess" - that promises the worst of a good thing.

What is certain, cable mogul John Malone forecasts, is "an interesting shift of power."

The power will shift to the television consumer, if the consumer chooses to use it.

Here's the overview.

Chickens and eggs.

Network-owned TV stations in the 10 largest metro markets are under government order to start airing hi-def programs this fall. Some, as in Chicago and New York, will not be ready. Digital hi-def signals won't blanket the whole country until 2002. Early-bird transmissions will play to a microscopic audience: The first sets will cost between $5,000 and $12,000. How quickly prices fall is uncertain.

Pipeline problems.

Some 70 percent of American homes depend on cable to deliver programs from the four major networks. With their channel capacity saturated, major cable systems refuse to guarantee they'll carry network hi-def programs. Industry players are currently in negotiations. Who wants to put unsightly and unreliable antennae back on the roof if they fail?

Digital cable.

HBO plans some digital programming this summer. NBC promises "Titanic" in hi-def by winter. Fifteen million set-top boxes to convert digital hi-def signals to existing nondigital home sets become available starting next year. Among outstanding questions: How much will boxes degrade hi-def picture quality? Major cable companies insist they won't. Others are skeptical. Will companies recoup the billions they are investing in system upgrades and boxes? That depends on whether cable subscribers are willing to invest the $300 or so it will cost for a digital box.

How high the def?

Networks and cable systems and PC overlords - Microsoft and Intel - war endlessly over the technical standards for high-definition images, as well as the fidelity they'll actually deliver to the viewer. Set makers are designing a "universal" chip to adjust to 18 different hi-def standards, but there are developmental and price issues. Some program suppliers plan to serve less than picture-perfect hi-def. Digital technology permits multiplexing by slicing a single cable or broadcast channel into five or six different services - an economic temptation to stations and networks who seek quick profits. That means poorer pictures.

Who rules?

This query underlies the struggle to realize the fabled marvels and riches of "HDTV City." Computermakers want technical standards that favor the PC screen as the portal to hi-def's Magic Kingdom. Cable operators are betting billions that their platform will become the dominant springboard for an all-purpose hi-def appliance that also delivers e-mail and Web access. Satellite TV is in the mix, too.

Programming.

We hear about the promise of hi-def technology, but nothing about content. Sports, which drove the first television revolution, is charging an admission price to TV cameras that broadcasters and cable operators increasingly can't afford. Republicans in Congress are predictably balking at paying public television's way into the digital future.

The government.

The Federal Communications Commission is under pressure to keep hands off while private enterprise sorts things out. Washington is counting on consumers to keep the economy churning by spending some $125 billion to convert to digital sets between now and 2006. It is also counting on windfall revenues of $20 billion from the auction of darkened nondigital channels.

What do consumers want?

No TV station in my town has asked us whether we want to lay out big money for pretty pictures on the digital channel each telecaster gets for free. Nor have they asked what content will entice us to go digital. Commercial TV operates on public property, after all. I detect no groundswell to view the same cheesy TV just gussied up in a new, high-fashion gown.

If the "revolution" is about more live suicides and immolations, or more low-ball raunchmeisters, like Howard Stern and Jerry Springer, in high definition, I intend to vote "no" to hi-def and invite you to join the boycott.

Hi-def gives us enormous motivation to abandon our own dysfunctional dependency on bad TV and the leverage to demand quality in content as well as image. A shameless industry and government deregulators will finally get the message.

* Jerry M. Landay writes on telemedia issues from Urbana, Ill.

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