Digital TV – Minus Viewers

The digital revolution was supposed to engulf television by 2006, according to government decree. No more old-fashioned analog sets, but new signals and sets with unbelievably crisp pictures and all kinds of interactive options, helping spur a new economic age.

Alas, the revolution has been postponed. Nearly 80 percent of US TV stations missed the May 1 deadline, set by federal legislation, to convert their signals to digital, or high-definition, format. (See story, page 1.)

But even more telling than that: Consumers have bought only about 2.7 million digital sets. That compares with 250 million traditional analog sets in American homes. Average viewers, watching their average 26 hours or so a week, have so far seen little reason to shell out $2,000 or more for a new digital TV.

And with the market so weak, a majority of station managers have balked at the significant investment they'd have to make to convert to digital broadcasting. The TV networks and other sources of programming have been slow, for the same reason, to produce digital fare.

On the whole, it appears, the technology gurus and government planners who saw the revolution brewing were too far ahead of the masses. That raises a question: Why not trust consumers to demand a new product?

Many members of Congress have become convinced that, for international competitive reasons as well as for expanding the high-tech economy, the move to digital TV needs a federal push. Also, the move would free up airwaves now used for analog broadcasts for various wireless applications. The revenue from auctioning those airwaves will be a nice little windfall for the government.

But consumers have to be on board for all that to happen. If they're not, there might be some underlying reasons beyond high-priced sets. Parents, trying to curb their children's viewing habits, may wonder if they really need technology that will make TV even more attractive. They also may not be all that taken with the idea of buying stuff via TV, or being able to change camera angles.

It's a case of let the seller beware.

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