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Digital Sets Open New TV Era

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By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 1998


The screen was small. The images flickered. And everything back then - circa 1948 - was black-and-white.

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But anyone comparing early televisions with recent sets would see some of the same shortcomings. Despite improved technology, we still watch TV in much the same way we did 50 years ago.

That's about to change - dramatically. By marrying the power of computing with the ease-of-use of television, TV viewing is poised for its biggest change since the medium was invented. This week inaugurates the new era as the first high-definition television sets (HDTVs) hit store shelves in the United States.

"It is a major ... change in the way we perceive the television set," says Corey Carbonara, executive director of the Institute for Technology Innovation Management at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

"It's not just pretty pictures and better sound. It really is going to revolutionize the way information and entertainment is routed to the home," he says.

Instead of watching TV, viewers in the next decade will interact with it. Instead of surfing channels of video, they'll navigate oceans of data. Advanced technology will give broadcast news more punch, make movies more engaging, and enhance sports telecasts so viewers can call up a baseball player's stats as he steps to the mound.

But the new TV could also become more addictive and more isolating.

By coming out first, Panasonic's new 56-inch HDTV - available in limited quantities in some stores - has fired the first shot in TV's revolution.

With pictures that are four times sharper than today's sets and sound that rivals a movie theater, HDTV will not only enhance the viewing experience, it will expand the scope of what producers can offer. For example, televised sports rely on intense close-ups of individual players to record their emotions after a big play. Cameras can focus on only a single player because today's TVs are too fuzzy to capture grimaces or smiles of a group. HDTV will change all that, offering the same level of detail in a much wider view.

"You'll see all the sweat drops," says Andreas Papanicolaou, president of Lucent Digital Video in Murray Hill, N.J., which makes television encoders. "Before I had seen [HDTV], I was skeptical. Within two minutes after you see it, you say: 'There's something here.' "

Sets run $6,000

The technology is so engaging, industry officials expect consumers will eventually throw away their current sets and buy HDTV models in about a decade, when broadcasters switch over completely to the new format and stop sending out the standard signal.

In the near term, HDTV sales may prove something of a disappointment. The first-generation sets are expensive - $6,000 and up - and owners won't be able to take advantage of the technology until the fall.

By Nov. 1, the four major networks - ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox - are scheduled to start broadcasting HDTV programs in the top 10 US markets. But cable TV companies, which have hooked up two-thirds of American homes, have not decided if they'll air those broadcasts immediately. And though the Federal Communications Commission is looking into rules that would force cable companies to air HDTV broadcasts, it isn't expected to rule until next year.