US Companies Work Toward Standard for High-Definition TV

HUNDREDS of manufacturing, high technology, and television officials will gather in video conference centers in about 50 United States cities July 29. At issue during the six-hour, live satellite teleconference will be US industry and HDTV - high-definition television.

The video conference is believed to be the first of its kind ever held in the US. The gathering could provide an "impetus" for the companies involved in HDTV to move from the current research stage toward manufacturing HDTV applications, says Samuel W. Webster Jr., president of the Center For Advanced Electronic Imaging. The center, based at the University of Texas at Dallas, represents companies and research groups engaged in electronic technologies. The video conference will explore such issues as broa dcasting, medical technologies, computers, entertainment, and equipment, Mr. Webster says.

Late last month, a number of the major players involved in HDTV agreed to work together to develop a standardized system. The Federal Communications Commission will have to agree on a standard. If that occurs by late 1994, as expected, then actual production of a new range of electronic applications for broadcasting - from studio equipment to television sets - could be under way by the late 1990s. At stake for American industry is eventually hundreds of millions of dollars, experts such as Webster say. T he groups that have agreed to work together include AT&T, David Sarnoff Research Center, General Instruments Corporation, Zenith Electronics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Philips Electronics of the Netherlands, and Thomson Electronics of France. In addition, scores of small- to medium-sized US companies, including cable television companies, would be affected by a common standard agreement.

SOME national broadcasting groups that would be affected immediately by a move toward HDTV are not yet embracing the new partnership. The National Association of Broadcasters, for example, calls the new agreement "vague on technical details that are vital to broadcasters." Proponents insist HDTV will revolutionize broadcasting by providing sharper pictures than are possible under existing technologies. They say the clarity will be as sharp as that seen on movie screens.

US, European, and Japanese firms all have been racing to get out front on HDTV. But the countries' approaches have been quite distinct. Japanese (and some European) companies have been leaning toward using an analog delivery system; US companies favor a digital system. Manufacturers would require a standardized system to justify the high costs involved in any new HDTV production process.

The new technology will change the way Americans receive and use television, Webster says. Conventional broadcasting stations and the big four TV networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox) also could be immediately affected, he says, since digital HDTV transmission would most likely be sent via cable systems rather than on open airwaves. Adding new technological equipment at local broadcast stations could cost the stations well over $1 million and possibly up to $15 million or more, experts say.

Cable companies would enjoy new clout under HDTV. Television manufacturers would also stand to make money; initially, HDTV could add between $1,000 and $2,000 to the cost of a new set, although the price is expected to drop significantly after the first year. Some experts say that up to 100,000 new jobs could be created in the US from HDTV technologies. HDTV proponents hope to have their new system in place by the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996.

Still, some analysts say that there are far too many imponderables to determine which companies will be economic winners. "We just don't know" how the entire HDTV process will play out in terms of the system selected and the companies that will become major manufacturers of new applications, says John Reidy, an analyst with Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Company.

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