Digital TV Via Land Antenna May Soon Beam Across Britain

US lags in introducing such technology; Britons to see more channels

Four of Britain's most powerful broadcasting companies are joining forces to offer the country's 55 million viewers a digital 30-channel TV service giving crystal-clear pictures.

And while 30 channels may not wow the American TV viewer, used to at least twice that much with cable and satellite TV, 30 channels would mean a seven-fold increase in channel options for most Britons.

The consortium of the commercial companies Carlton and Granada, the satellite company British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB), and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is seen by media analysts as a giant leap forward into the age of high-definition digital television.

Raymond Snoddy, media editor of the Financial Times, says the new company, known as British Digital Broadcasting (BDB), promises to be "at the forefront of a revolution in viewing habits."

Mr. Snoddy says that if Britain's Independent Television Authority moves quickly to award BDB a digital license, British viewers could be enjoying the high-definition, wide-screen pictures provided by the new 30-channel system within 18 months, ahead of their American counterparts.

The earliest American networks could start digital broadcasts is spring 1998, and, according to US reports, at first only some programs would be transmitted digitally.

Digital technology works by compressing TV signals, allowing many channels to occupy the wavelength currently used by a single analog channel. Despite the compression, the images provided are much sharper than images transmitted by analog technology.

At present, Britain has four national terrestrial TV channels, with a fifth due to come on-stream in May. Unlike viewers in the US, Britons have been very slow to opt for cable and satellite TV.

Fewer than one-quarter of British homes receive programs via cable or through satellite dishes bolted to the outer walls of houses and apartments. Most people are content to watch the BBC's two public terrestrial channels and two commercial terrestrial channels.

Seventy-four percent of viewers in the United States have cable or satellite TV.

Michael Green, chairman of Carlton, which currently serves the London area, said Friday: "Going digital is the most important development for British television since the introduction of color."

A rival bid to begin telecasts using the new technology has been lodged by Digital Television Network (DTN), wholly owned by International CableTel. Its proposal claims to offer more "innovative" programs, as well as interactive data services. But industry sources indicate that BDB's proposed range of programs is likely to find greater favor with Britain's broadcast authorities than DTN, which would rely more heavily on American material.

The digital programs would be received through ordinary TV antennas, without the need for satellite dishes or cable. The programming would be a mixture of programs currently made and broadcast individually by the participating companies.

A startling feature of the four-company alliance is that it includes both BSkyB and the BBC, widely seen as bitter rivals for the national audience.

The quality of BBC programs in such fields as news, drama, and sports would greatly enhance the appeal of BDB programming.

Rupert Murdoch, who controls BSkyB, has plans for a 200-channel digital satellite service that is likely to start up in about a year.

But because British viewers have been slow to buy into the satellite option, Snoddy says, Mr. Murdoch appears to have decided to join in BDB: "He sees participation as either a bridge to the future or insurance against the 200 channel's possible lack of popularity."

BDB says it is will invest 300 million ($480 million) in its planned digital operation.

Much uncertainty remains about how much it will cost British viewers to access the new service. Most viewers already pay about 90 per year for a license for each TV. Dixons, a leading consumer electronics chain, says a digital TV set will cost about 200 more than a conventional analog receiver.

People wishing to keep their existing sets, Dixons say, would have to buy decoders that, depending on the volume of sales, would cost between 200 and 400.

A "smart card" adapter, costing an extra 50, would allow viewers to receive programs via a satellite dish.

According to Mr. Green, 9 million British homes will have digital TV by 2008. The project is expected to be profitable within five years.

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