NEW YORK — As Americans flick on their televisions, little do they know a government-mandated revolution could radically change the picture come November.
That's when a handful of major market stations will begin transmitting digital television.
The new signal will produce pictures as sharp and dazzling as the best movie theater screens. The CD-quality sound will fill any room with lifelike rumbles.
But there's a problem, at least initially: Hardly anyone will be able to see or hear it. And that's sparked a battle among the nation's media titans on Capitol Hill. The end result could determine how and when the new high-tech signals will reach the majority of American homes and whether the public will benefit from the billions of dollars of broadcast spectrum, that for now, have been given to the broadcasters for free.
"It's really what the future will be," says Jeff Chester of the Center for Media Education, a nonprofit public-advocacy group in Washington. "And just like the introduction of television had a fundamental impact on our political system, so too will digital television, because it's interactive."
At the heart of the current debate is whether cable companies, which provide two-thirds of the nation's households with TV, will be required to carry the new signal, in addition to their regular analog signal.
The broadcasters say they must if the nation's transition to the new high tech signal is to be completed in a timely manner - and more important, to preserve the country's system of free over-the-air TV in the digital age.
The cable companies counter that carrying two signals from every broadcast station would wreak havoc by forcing over-crowded cable systems to knock off valued channels, like C-Span and Discovery, to make room for something that most people won't even see. That's at least until consumers buy a new digital television initially priced at $5,000 to $12,000, or a new box-top converter.
"It's a very thorny issue," says Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who chaired a hearing on the problem Wednesday.
The transition from analog to digital is similar to the move from black-and- white to color TV in the 1950s, but experts say it's much more complex.
When the networks started transmitting in color, people with black-and- white sets could still see the signal. That's not the case for digital. As a result, every station will now have to broadcast two signals, one analog and one digital, at least until everyone buys a new set or a converter. The shift to color was also prompted primarily by natural market forces. It still took 10 years for color to reach half of American households.
At the moment, the government driving the digital shift has mandated that it be completed by 2006. That makes many businesspeople wary.
"Will the consumer wish to have a full up high-definition signal? The answer to that is that we don't know because consumers haven't seen it, have they?" says Peter Martin, general manager of WCAX-TV in Burlington, Vt.
As a result, he says, this is a "tense" and "awkward" time. The average broadcast station will have to invest an estimated $10 million to make the digital shift.
THERE are technical questions as well. Most of the networks want to transmit one kind of digital signal, while the cable companies are insisting they use another.
That gets back to the fundamental problem of whether cable companies should be required to carry the broadcasters digital signals. Under the current "must carry" law, cable companies have to carry the local broadcast stations, to ensure that everyone has access to the local news and programming.
Cable companies fought that rule all the way to the Supreme Court, but lost last year. So now they're digging in their heels, insisting that "must carry" does not apply to the digital signal, as well as the analog.
"We'll fight 'must carry' to the death on digital high-def," John Malone, head of TCI, said at a conference in May.
C-SPAN's Brian Lamb has joined the fray, arguing that millions of Americans will lose access to the 24-hour government channel if cable companies are forced to carry the new digital signal.
"What's going to happen ... is going to be one of the greatest train wrecks you've ever seen," says Mr. Lamb. He contends that C-SPAN and other cable channels will be knocked off dozens of systems to make way for, among other things, the digital version of the home-shopping network. And unless people have a digital television or a converter box, they won't see anything other than a blank screen where C-Span used to be.
The broadcasters contend Lamb and the cable companies are "crying wolf" just as they did when "must carry" was first passed in 1992.
" 'Must carry' for digital is fundamental to whether or not digital television is going to become a reality for the American consumer," says Eddie Fritz, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.
The FCC will look for a compromise solution at a hearing today, but doesn't expect to find one until next year.