THE Europeans have just stumbled in the race to develop the next-generation television in the United States.
A European-led consortium was supposed to let the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) test its system starting June 3. But technical problems cropped up. The FCC did not get the unassembled equipment until last Friday. The consortium says it has lost 12 working days in the six-week test.
"The systems individually tested well, but didn't test well when they were hooked up together," says Frank McCann, spokesman for Thomson Consumer Electronics, a US subsidiary of French-owned Thomson CSF.
The race is an important contest of national technological know-how. The new TV standard, called high-definition television (HDTV), will offer film-quality video and compact-disc quality sound.
Whoever wins will gain a key edge in the technology of transmitting high-quality video. The potential market extends far beyond television. In a few years, many analysts expect a multibillion dollar market to emerge as businesses and educational and medical facilities take advantage of the technology.
The delay from the European-led consortium may hinder its chances in the competition. The consortium asked for an extension but FCC officials offered only to work overtime within the original time slot.
"The indications were that they [FCC officials] would do everything they could so that the key tests were performed," Mr. McCann says. "We are just confident that we will get a fair test."
Besides Thomson, the consortium includes the David Sarnoff Research Center, NBC, and the US unit of Philips NV of the Netherlands. Thomson and Philips are large European TV manufacturers with important stakes in the US market.
Officially, four groups are competing: the European-led consortium, Japanese broadcaster NHK, General Instrument Corporation with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a partnership between Zenith Electronics and AT&T.
The two US groups are considered the front-runners. Japan's system uses older analog technology. The European-led consortium now has to play catch-up.
"It's not a good sign when things show up late," says Matthew Miller, vice president of technology at General Instrument.
Five years ago, the Japanese held the lead in HDTV. They now broadcast some HDTV programs. The Europeans created a consortium to build a HDTV system. Both systems are analog, like TV broadcasting in the US.
But recent breakthroughs in digital technology have allowed US companies to leapfrog their competition. Digital signals are in the binary format that computers use. Analog signals are like sound and light waves.
Until recently, broadcasters could not use digital signals because they carried too much information to transmit. The competing HDTV groups have devised ways to compress all that information so that digital signals can flow through a traditional TV channel.
That involves sending only part of the signal, letting the receiver predict what picture it should receive, says Mr. Knauer of Bell Labs. These techniques work well when the picture is, say, of two people walking along the desert. When the camera is whirling past many shapes and colors, the compression systems have a hard time keeping up. Fortunately, so does the human eye, Knauer says, so some blurring of the TV picture is acceptable. "It's tricks like that that you have to rely on," he adds.
All the digital contenders claim they have the best system. The AT&T-Zenith entry is in some ways the most complicated and has demonstrated it can operate at long distances without disrupting nearby TV channels. General Instrument bills its system as simpler, more compatible with existing TV equipment. The European consortium says that by testing later, it has incorporated more advanced features. The FCC is likely to choose a standard by late 1993.