ST. LOUIS — The screen was small. The images flickered. And everything back then - circa 1948 - was black-and-white.
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.
In any case, HDTV represents only one piece of the digital revolution that is changing television. By turning their transmissions systems into pipelines carrying bits of data, broadcasters and cable companies are giving themselves far more flexibility in what they can offer. They can air a beautiful HDTV movie in prime time, but split the signal into four channels of programming late at night or during the day.
Each of those four channels will look and sound more like today's television than HDTV. But its digital features mean broadcasters can send reams of data along with video.
And consumers won't have to spend thousands of dollars on an HDTV set to get such features. They will be able to buy a $300 to $400 set-top box that will convert the digital signal for viewing on today's televisions.
"It's possible that in 10 years you'll have roughly the same remote control, you'll be watching the same TV, but if you want, you'll have access to more information," says Raghu Rao, director of marketing for TeraLogic, a semiconductor manufacturer for advanced TVs based in Mountain View, Calif.
Initially, television of the future will probably look a lot like the Internet Web pages of today, industry officials say. There will be spots on the screen where viewers can click for more data. Hooked up to a telephone line, a TV set could let you order items from a home-shopping show using the remote control.
If HDTV represents one piece of the digital TV revolution, this data-intensive viewing - what Mr. Rao calls "enhanced television" - represents another. Industry insiders say such services should begin to appear in the next two to three years.
The third part of TV's digital revolution will likely take longer. Instead of a one-way medium, television is expected to become a two-way channel. Viewers will no longer only receive data, they'll communicate through their TV sets. That will allow them to browse the Internet, send e-mail, even make phone calls through their TV.
Access to the Internet will be so speedy that viewers could finally get the workable, easy-to-use video phone that technologists have promised for decades.
This third phase will likely be driven by cable television, which is already busy upgrading its systems. By 2002, "everybody that logically should be upgraded to two-way will be," says Jerry Bennington, senior vice president for Internet technology at CableLabs, in Louisville, Colo. Over-the-air broadcasters, though, will find it much harder to remake themselves into two-way networks.
For all its benefits, digital television could have drawbacks, industry officials and observers say. It could be more addictive, although few believe that Americans in the next millennium will watch more TV than they do today.
If families find it hard to agree on what to watch now, they'll find it even more challenging when TVs allow infinite paths to information.
"For a period of time, [HDTVs] may bring the family together because you only have one of them," says Michael Wirth, director of the school of communication at the University of Denver. "But as the prices come down ... the marriage of high-speed access and digital TV will be more isolating."
Of course, technology only reveals possibilities. What TV really looks like in the early 21st century will depend on viewers.