A decade ago, everybody knew the future of television: better pictures and clearer sound. Today, broadcasters aren't so sure. The closer they get to building the next-generation TV system, the fuzzier the idea gets.
Politics has blurred the issue. Ironically, so has the technology. But in six months or so, the federal government is expected to approve final standards for next-generation TV and the industry will have to make a hard decision: Do consumers want prettier pictures or more channels?
The choice will determine how well broadcasters compete against the cable-TV and satellite-TV industries that are nibbling away at their audience.
"Digital television offers so many opportunities and alternatives, it definitely is unclear what that is going to involve," says Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C. "It's going to be a weird roller-coaster ride for the industry."
The heart of the problem is that broadcasters have to make a technological leap of faith. For all sorts of reasons, they want to begin delivering digital television, which uses the 1s and 0s of computer language. But they can't do it overnight, because that would make millions of TV sets immediately obsolete.
So, for a time, they will have to broadcast their signal in the new and old formats. To do this, they need federal approval to get a second channel in the scarce broadcast spectrum. Through this spring, congressional budget-cutters wanted to auction off that part of the spectrum to raise badly needed revenues. But the broadcast industry's political clout and its argument that it would eventually give back its original channels won the day, and Congress didn't legislate an auction. Barring a big political change in November's election, even broadcasters' opponents concede each broadcast station will get a second channel.
Consumer groups still want the industry to give something. "The whole theory behind free spectrum is that broadcasters have to do something for the public," says Gigi Sohn, deputy director of the Media Access Project, a public-interest law firm based in Washington, D.C. For example, she proposes that in the month prior to an election, stations be required to offer candidates five free minutes of time a night to talk to voters.
Other lesser political controversies remain. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to pack the new digital channels around existing channels so that, for most of the country, the largely unused spectrum between channels 60 and 69 would remain open. That way, the federal government could auction off that part of the spectrum later on. The industry, worried about interference, opposes that idea.
Also, the computer industry wants the digital standard tweaked in such a way that the signal will be most compatible with its computers. Broadcasters argue they've compromised enough. But the FCC is looking at the issue. "To ignore the needs of the computer industry, which is so vital to the growth of the US economy, would be absurd," says one FCC official.
But even players within the computer industry appear more eager to see digital TV happen than to get everything they want at the bargaining table. "We don't feel it's worthwhile resetting the process to address this one issue," says Serge Rutman of computer chipmaker Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif.
IF the FCC delivers its final rulings early next year, as expected, industry officials say digital TVs could begin rolling into consumers' living rooms by late 1998. But the industry is not at all sure that consumers are going to shell out the $700 or more needed to buy television sets that can deliver the high-resolution pictures and sound that the technologists envision.
So, instead of delivering this high-end version of digital television, known as high-definition television, or HDTV, broadcasters may use the technology to offer standard-definition television, or SDTV. The resolution of SDTV isn't much different from today's television. But its advantage is that broadcasters could offer four to six channels of SDTV programming simultaneously.
Satellite TV companies are already delivering SDTV and, as early as this fall, cable-TV networks could begin doing the same. So broadcasters, who have already lost a big share of their audience to these rivals, have to figure out whether to move to several channels of SDTV, one very pretty offering of HDTV, or some mix of the two with HDTV during prime time and sports events.